A Very Simple Proposal

by Mark Scaramella, February 25, 2010

The Groundswell following Dave Smith’s generous “Draft Scaramella for Supervisor” suggestion has been, ahem, less than underwhelming. Not one letter of support has been received for publication. And I think four, maybe five, people have indicated various degrees of lukewarm support to me personally. None of those five mentioned anything about my basic “platform” that the County needs better management systems before it can move forward on anything else.

After first finding my management and defense industry experience to be a major negative, Mr. Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt, one of the few people to even respond on Dave Smith’s interesting Ukiah Community Blog website (http://ukiahcommunityblog.wordpress.com/), trying to at least be fair minded about my background, replied:

Mr. Scaramella,

Despite my instinctive reaction to Mr. Smith’s presentation of your credentials in the defense industry, I have nonetheless been looking through some of your pieces in Counterpunch and agree with much of what you have to say, and can recognize that like C. Johnson, and Chuck Spinney, among others, you obviously learned some important things from working inside the “national security” complex. I’m sure that you know where quite a few bodies are buried.

The problem of managerial efficiency may, as you suggest, be the biggest issue facing the county today. I won’t pretend to have your managerial expertise, or your intricate knowledge of the budget process.

But as a student of history and politics, I’ll say that I think there’s more to government than mere technical efficiency (as an aside I think this was one of the big problems of the early 1960s – the assumption that all the big questions were settled and it was simply a matter of putting the “best and the brightest” systems analysts in the right position to implement consensus. That turned into a disaster.). Government is about more than technical solutions – it’s about leadership, vision and philosophy, direction and dynamism, and yes, even values and culture.

To answer your final question directly, I would like to see the county managed humanely. All conceptions of “efficiency” flow from there.

Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt

Of course there’s “more to government than mere technical efficiency.” Nobody ever said there wasn’t. And I have never proposed “technical efficiency.”

Mr. Wolfe-Hunnicutt also says absolutely nothing about Mendocino County itself, preferring abstract big-think — “leadership, vision and philosophy, direction and dynamism, and yes, even values and culture” — to local specifics.

The invocation of the phrase “best and brightest” is not only silly, but far from applicable to Mendocino County.

It’s interesting that the few critics of my basic management proposals insist on complaining about things I never said.

Candidate Dan Hamburg said that I had accused the County management structure of being “totally incompetent.”

I never said anything like that.

Mr. Wolfe-Hunnicutt complains that ordinary management reporting systems are somehow inhumane and “one of the big problems of the early 60s.” (An apparent glancing reference to Robert McNamara and the rest of the Best and Brightest who seemed to be able to kill people and waste money more efficiently than Eisenhower did. That wasn’t even true, much less justifiable. McNamara’s Pentagon bureaucracy was wasteful, dumb, ideological and criminal.)

These are typical lib-lab responses to things non-serious people don’t want to do or even deal with. Instead of saying whether they agree or not, or if they’ll explore or pursue these proposals, they change the subject into something much more grand-sounding and amorphous. Things for which they can not be held responsible.

To repeat: All I propose is that the Board of Supervisors get regular, monthly management reports from each major department with three sheets of paper for each department.

Page 1 would graphically depict rolling month by month staffing and budget status for the latest 12-month window, showing number of slots authorized and filled, extra help, lost time, overtime, etc. Budget info would track both revenues and expenditures, budget vs. actual. Overlaid on these budget and staffing graphs would be graphs of cost drivers for each department.

For example:

Planning and Building: Number of permits submitted and approved. Number of inspections and results.

Sheriff: Number of 911 calls, responses, arrests by category. Number of inmates, new inmates, reasons.

DA: Number of referrals, filings, pleas, trials, by category.

HHS: Number of clients, number of new clients, amounts disbersed, etc.

Transportation: Miles of roadwork done. Backlog. Supplies. Complaints.

Internal Support: Amount of floor space, number of computers owned/serviced, maintenance calls, etc.

Page 2 would summarize each department’s outside contracts by name and value and the status of the contract.

Page 3 would be a summary of special projects and current and anticipated problems, particularly any problems with other departments which require resolution.

As months pass, these three charts would accumulate into a very informative history for each department and the basis for pointed questions and follow-up action. (“Wait a minute. You said two months ago that this would be done last month. What happened?”) It would also give the Board an opportunity to agendize specific topics with more focused attention.

Over time the Supes and the CEO would gain a better understanding of what’s going on in the departments, and the departments would be forced to focus on what’s important as would their subordinates in their individual departments.

* * *

To make time for this focus on the departmental review process there should be a major change made to the agenda preparation. The agenda should be driven by the Supervisors and the CEO, NOT the departments. The Board should not have to spend three or four wasteful, boring hours on a “presentation from staff” on piddling technical subjects like off-site leach fields or inclusionary housing elements. Such topics, if they must be agendized at all, should simply be a document in the agenda packet, with perhaps specific things that may need management decisions. At present the Board is whipsawed into wasting way too much time on mundane subjects which should be handled by staff. The Board should impose time limits on all departmental presentations just like they do the public. “Timed items” should have a “time limit” unless the item involves public input which should be flexible.

These things are so obvious, so necessary and so simple that I don’t understand why there’s any resistance to them.

The only possible explanations could be that 1. Management has something to hide, or 2. They prefer to muddle along the way they are because it allows them to act like befuddled bystanders whenever the next crisis hits.

Given the lack of response to these basic management tools in the past I don’t expect anything remotely resembling them to be implemented – especially considering the current crop of Supervisorial candidates who neither understand nor care about staying on top of the County’s operations. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are long overdue.

They’re certainly not “leadership, vision and philosophy, direction and dynamism, and yes, even values and culture,” but they might form the basis for them if such ephemermalities are even on the horizon.

* * *

In a future post we’ll again return to the County’s still-bloated management structure which – unsurprisingly — continues to be exempt from the budget ax and which is also conspicuously missing from platforms of the current Supervisor candidates.

2 Responses to A Very Simple Proposal

  1. Trent Foster Reply

    February 28, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Dear Mark
    Since we have agreed to disagree I not only agree with Dave Smith,and second that motion or emotion, well I agree with you!
    It would be nice to hear your name mentioned as a figure of authority, instead of disdain, or the rolling of eyes. jaundiced or not
    The only other name I could think of that is any where near capable of said position is Ralph Nader, but in a state were we elected a movie star for govener, or nation that rests on the promises of President Obomba your momma, our county shall not see things my way, perhaps for good reason!
    None the less the golf course is the ideal place for our next Costco, and that is my platform when I run for what ever I am not qualified for.

  2. Michael Foley Reply

    March 2, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. But with the Board of Supervisors, according to a recent posting in Ukiah Blog by Jim Houle (http://ukiahcommunityblog.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/dancing-in-the-dark-on-low-gap-road/), preferring not to govern but to leave that to the CEO while they “make policy” (on the basis of what, pray tell?), it is indeed hard to imagine that they will take up these elementary suggestions.

    Has it occurred to anyone else that turning our government over to a handful of ambitious eccentrics with the power to make decisions behind closed doors is a bad idea? Maybe we need to re-examine the old New England town meeting, still vital here and there.

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