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VOL. 42 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 09, 2018

Customer-focused government not always a pleaser

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Gov. Bill Haslam is fond of saying government should run more like a business, and during his eighth and final State of the State address he invoked the term “customer-focused” at least twice in a victory lap.

Touting education improvements, budget reductions, tax cuts, low unemployment and a growing rainy day fund, the Republican governor says Tennessee made unprecedented strides during his two terms, largely because of newfound efficiency.

“So, let me be clear, because of the effectiveness of our work, Tennessee is in a better place today than it has ever been before,” the governor said in his speech.

Haslam is so fixated on customer-focused government, in fact, he started an Office of Customer Focused Government to align with his vision of running state government in a business-like fashion.

“As the state’s consulting office, we collaborate with state agencies to drive innovation and operational efficiency to benefit Tennesseans,” the office says in a statement explaining its mission.

The office runs the executive branch’s performance management system, making sure each cabinet-level agency meets its operating goals, “which are driven by the governor’s priorities.”

Among its work, the office:

-- Manages Transparent Tennessee, a web tool providing people with information about the state’s visions, goals and accomplishments, such as its AAA bond ratings and how it compares with other states. The tool “increases accountability” by showing taxpayers how their dollars are spent, and is being updated to Transparent Tennessee 2.0.

-- Leads Alternative Workplace Solutions, a program designed to increase employee flexibility and productivity with open and “collaborative” work space. In turn, it reduces the state’s real estate needs.

-- Handles the Governor’s Excellence in Service Awards, which recognizes executive branch employees who are “transforming” the delivery of state services.

-- Oversees facilities management in an effort to improve the state’s real estate portfolio and cut operating costs. (We’ll get back to this later.)

-- Runs EmPower TN, a statewide program to reduce energy consumption and lower utility costs in state-owned and managed buildings. It’s averaging a 40 percent space reduction in places where the program is being used.

-- Handles the Governor’s Management Fellowship, a program for those who want to work for and learn from the state’s top executives.

Customer Focused Government also was involved in the 2015 move to a unified logo, one in which the state paid a company $46,000 to put TN on a red field. “This has facilitated clear, consistent communication in interactions with citizens and avoids the cost of managing separate state agency brand identities,” the office states.

Refusing to rest on its laurels, the office is planning to launch a bevy of programs in 2018 before Haslam heads for the hills.

Besides Transparent Tennessee 2.0, it will start MyTN.gov, a mobile app to bolster accessibility to state services, Service Partnership Agreements, which will clarify responsibilities and set “performance metrics” for General Services, Human Resources and Finance and Administration departments and conduct Continuity of State Operations to “facilitate a seamless transition” for the next governor’s administration.

“The office has been at the forefront of transforming state management and operations to provide better services to our citizens at a lower cost,” Cowles says. “Our office is the primary organization for determining how the state’s resources can be better utilized to provide for innovative services and operational efficiency of taxpayer dollars. The project we have led are providing the state with opportunities to save millions annually in taxpayer dollars that will help maintain our fiscal strength as we continue to provide for the needs of our citizens into the future.”

Measuring up

Of course, all of this collaboration, facilitation, transformation, accountability, interaction and metrics performance doesn’t come without a price.

Director Terry Cowles’ salary is $159,132, and his deputy director makes $93,600. Two senior management consultants are paid more than $73,000, and a couple more personnel make around $52,000. Four management fellows also make more than $51,500.

That’s $714,300 in salaries alone to make sure the state’s bureaucracy is well-oiled. It must be noted the Department of General Services is seeing a $183,900 reduction in recurring expenses for fiscal 2019 out of a $41.8 million department budget.

And when the state’s budget is projected at $37.5 billion for next fiscal year, those 10 salaries barely register.

Then again, if you work in maintenance or janitorial services for the University of Tennessee and a government bureaucrat sitting in the Tennessee Tower in downtown Nashville wants to turn you over to a private company, possibly putting your job at risk, you might take a little different view.

But that’s exactly what the state did after it outsourced 10 percent of state office space to Chicago-based JLL a few years ago and purportedly saved $10 million over two years, according to the office.

Armed with those numbers, the Office of Customer Focused Government wanted to privatize all state building maintenance.

Cowles told legislators the state could save more than $35.8 million annually if it turned over all facilities management to a vendor, which turned out to be JLL. The contract with the vendor was to contain “strict language” prohibiting a reduction in force and stating no “qualified and productive” employee would lose their job, words sure to be comforting to state workers.

The proposal ran headlong into complaints from legislators and the United Campus Workers. And so far just about every university in the state has stuck with its own facilities management workers.

Likewise, a move to start privatizing state parks appears to be doomed, and a number of state workers at Fall Creek Falls are set to lose their jobs this year when Tennessee tears down an inn there and builds a new one.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons is a constant critic of the Haslam administration’s outsourcing effort.

“This notion of running this state like a business or running government like a business is a falsehood that’s repeated time and time again. But the reality is this is a public service, and there is no comparison,” says Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat.

“I’ve seen no evidence of any cost savings, any efficiencies or any benefit to the people of Tennessee from this so-called Office of Customer Focused Government. All I have seen are massive layoffs, downsizing, cuts to vital state services and several hardships created for Tennesseans.”

Clemmons suspects the office has been involved in several other things lawmakers “haven’t been able to sniff out yet,” and he calls that another part of the problem.

“Nobody really knows what these high-paid officials are up there cooking up, what the next scheme is they’re cooking up behind closed doors,” he adds.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, on the other hands, says he’s noticed a “fairly steady decrease” in the number of complaint calls and letters he receives about basic state services such as getting a driver’s license or buying tags during the Haslam administration.

Likewise, Sen. Ferrell Haile points to the Secretary of State’s office as a good example of increased efficiency over the last seven years. It has gone from 450 positions to 350 people who do more work and handle more programs, says Haile, a Gallatin Republican.

Sen. Bo Watson, a Hixson Republican who chairs the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee, says he can’t speak about the Office of Customer Focused Government because he doesn’t deal with it much.

Still, he says, “I think within this administration, within this Legislature, there has been a general theme that the citizens that we represent and serve are our first customers.”

The analysis

Gov. Haslam deserves some kudos for trying to put as many people as possible in junior college and technical school classrooms. Critics point out he’s doing it at the expense of four-year university students and the Hope Scholarship fund.

It’s hard to complain about tax cuts, too, even though the state’s wealthiest residents are getting the lion’s share of the breaks through the Hall tax phase-out while everyone else puts a few extra pennies in the piggy bank after they leave the grocery store.

But while we can at least put a pencil to some of those things, it’s harder to get a grasp on the accomplishments of Haslam’s Office of Customer Focused Government. It does a lot of facilitating and interacting, but it also has angered many people over the last seven years, much of it with little public notice, including its creation. That’s not exactly the “customer-focused” thing to do.

Yet, it likely will continue in some form or another under the next governor.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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