State watchdog barking, but who's listening?
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BY SUSAN M. COVER
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 01/31/2010

AUGUSTA -- In five years, lawmakers have implemented only 34 percent of the recommendations from a state government watchdog office.

This is leading some to ask: Just how effective is the state office whose mission it is to determine whether state programs are, well, effective?

"It really has been a disappointment to me, in that it hasn't performed," Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said. "It hasn't established itself as a real tool for finding efficiency in state government."

Diamond, who is Senate chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the committee that oversees the program evaluation office, said he didn't want to serve on the Government Oversight Committee.

It had a reputation of being "inefficient and overly partisan," he said.

After a year of service, he sees potential in the office -- and said there's been no formal discussion of disbanding or altering it during this current budget crunch -- but it needs to refocus to be more helpful to lawmakers.

"The potential is there," he said. "I like the concept of it." 

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability was created by legislation in 2002 and officially opened in January 2005.

It was controversial from the start, with some Democrats opposing creation of a new office at a time when state government was struggling financially.

But many Republicans and a few Democrats kept pushing, saying lawmakers needed an independent, nonpartisan office dedicated to determining whether state programs were working.

At the time, more than 40 other states had similar offices.

In Maine, Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, who was in the House when the bill to create the office passed, emerged as the most vocal supporter.

Today, he sits on the oversight committee with Diamond and has a different take on the office: He believes the office has done what the Legislature has asked it to do.

Trahan said now is a good time to consider changing the mission -- from one that takes months to evaluate the effectiveness of state programs, to one that is faster and more focused on finding savings for the state budget.

"It's time to consider structuring the office in a way that can help us with budget shortfalls," he said.

That may mean hiring outside consultants who can look at a particular question and come back quickly with recommendations, Trahan said.

The office has seven full-time jobs but is keeping one vacancy because of state budget cuts, Director Beth Ashcroft said.

Since July 2004, the state has spent $3.3 million to support the office, which has produced 23 reports on everything from bed capacity at the Riverview Psychiatric Center to the effectiveness of economic development programs.

Ashcroft, whose contract is under review by legislators, said she released a comprehensive report on the office earlier this month to give an honest assessment of its performance.

"My purpose in issuing a report like this was to be a model for transparency and accountability and show what it might look like if legislators were getting this kind of information on government functions," she said. "I was willing to put it right out there and let's talk about it." 

A former Central Maine Power Company auditor, Ashcroft created the office from the ground up.

She said the statute governing the office is broad and has led to different expectations from a variety of lawmakers.

Ashcroft said some want the office to find ways to save money, others want to know whether programs are effective and still others want to better understand how complicated government programs, such as MaineCare, work.

"For those who were expecting cost savings, I can't tell you I can point to anyplace where I can say, 'That got cut out of the budget because of work we've done,'" she said. "Are there places where we could save money? Yes. I think we've given them lots of ideas." 

But putting those ideas into action has been difficult.

Of the 132 recommendations made by the office from January 2005 to December 2009, fewer than half -- 63 -- have been implemented.

The recommendations, which are made specifically either to the Legislature or agency managers, were adopted 57 percent of the time by agency managers vs. 34 percent of the time by the Legislature.

Ashcroft said term limits and a part-time citizen Legislature have made it difficult to get the continuity necessary to make changes. And, lately, budget constraints have taken up a lot of legislative time, she said.

"We still have not nailed down what it is that's going to help the Legislature implement these things," she said.

Trahan said some legislators are unfamiliar with what the office -- referred to as OPEGA in State House halls -- is there to do.

"I think there's still a lot of individual legislators who don't understand it," he said.

When it comes to finding savings, Ashcroft said her office has studied the reasons behind overpayments and unnecessary expenditures. By bringing those problems to light, the office has recommended changes that will avoid those kinds of mistakes moving forward, she said.

"The point is to try to make them understand if we take action to correct these things, we could make sure we aren't in a similar position in the future," she said.

For example, Ashcroft estimates that the state could have avoided spending $16 million to fix a Department of Health and Human Services computer system if technology services had played a role in designing the system.

Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton, another member of the oversight committee, said he's happy with the progress made by the office.

"Some folks hoped it would be more aggressive," he said. "In some states, similar bodies have been given a much bigger stick." 

Nass, who serves on the oversight committee, said that, given the office's turbulent roots and more recent fights to cut funding, it has done well.

"I've been here long enough to know the real political landscape," he said. "The majority party didn't think we needed it." 

During budget cuts in 2008, Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, then majority leader, supported cutting office staff from seven to two and moving it under the Office of Fiscal and Program Review.

The proposal created a firestorm of controversy and was ultimately pulled from the budget.

Mitchell, one of several Democrats running for governor, said Friday she supports the office and wants to find a way to make it more effective.

"At this point, we're in the most severe recession and this budget is crying for guidance in terms of which programs are performing," she said. "Everybody wants it to work."

She said the office needs to be strengthened so it becomes the state-level equivalent of the federal Office of Management and Budget.

"We have not seen the savings we were all looking for," she said. "All of us had hoped it would pay for itself." 

Susan Cover -- 620-7015

scover@centralmaine.com