Sunday, February 1, 2009

Modernizing Government

For years, hard line conservatives have blasted "runaway" government spending, claiming that government needs to be run more like a business. While I think that principle is founded on faulty logic (the public and private sectors have completely different goals and purposes), I don't discount entirely the notion that government agencies could stand to benefit from some of the strategies, technologies, and management practices that successful companies employ.

I've been encouraged to find that Idaho government agencies seem to be looking for new ways to put services online and to harness the power of online technologies. In a hearing last week in the Business Committee, we heard from Dept. of Insurance Director Bill Deal (a former legislator) that the Department was able to eliminate 1.5 full-time employees (FTEs) thanks to it's online system for processing forms and applications that insurance companies are required to file with the department. In addition, the DOI introduced a rule that our sub-committee recommended we adopt that would charge insurance companies a premium for filing more than a certain number of applications on paper, rather than online.

Similarly, the Department of Finance has a pending rule that was presented to our committee that would enable Idaho mortgage professionals to handle their licensing through an online national service. This, too, creates efficiencies, though I wondered about using both carrot and stick to drive constituents to the less costly and more efficient ways of doing business with the state. I asked the Dept. of Finance representative why there was a clause that allowed people an out if they didn't want to apply online and why the Department wasn't charging a premium (a disincentive) for applying the old-fashioned way. I was told that they didn't think such a disincentive was needed as everyone was currently using the national database but that they might consider it in the future if trends changed.

We're going to hear a lot more about streamlining government in the coming weeks, particularly as the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) comes under scrutiny for its own practices and spending of public dollars. The Office of Performance Evaluation (OPE) recently released the audit that the 2008 Legislature mandated, detailing opportunities for doing more with less through improved project management, better strategic planning, and tools, systems, and processes that the Department currently lacks. But we must not forget the more pressing consideration that this comprehensive study revealed: no amount of cost containment and streamlining of processes can make up for the severe revenue shortfall that ITD perpetually faces. Should the Department address the shortcomings cited in the report? Absolutely. But penny-wise, pound-foolish planning by so-called fiscal conservatives has left us with an untenable situation, whose costs are mounting each year.

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