6 lessons I learned in the Capitol
May 23, 2004
Publisher: Sacramento Bee

Sacramento Bee

By the time I was appointed director of the state Employment Development Department (EDD) in April 1999, I had over 20 years in the employment field and background as an attorney, elected official and board member of several major job training agencies. But I soon found there is really no experience in the private or public sector that prepares you for heading a large state bureaucracy (EDD has over 10,000 employees).

As the Schwarzenegger department directors and deputy directors continue to come on board in 2004, let me set out some of the main lessons I learned in Sacramento. The California bureaucracies possess a high degree of professionalism, and maintaining this professionalism is a priority, as are other goals of maximizing limited state resources and maintaining the integrity of our public benefit programs.

1. Intellectual arrogance is the first deadly sin in state government: A few years back, an EDD Director was appointed with a background as a public interest lawyer and a degree from Harvard Law School. He quickly gained the reputation as thinking he was smarter than anyone else. He was smarter in certain ways. But he lasted less than seven months - undermined by an intellectual arrogance and a bureaucracy that didn't respect his ideas.

Just as there are various forms of intelligence in general, there are various forms of intelligence in government administration. As a director, recognize your limitations, and surround yourself with experienced state employees and competent administrators. At EDD, I turned to Michael Krisman, whose state service dated back to the early 1970s. "My main job is to keep you and the department out of trouble," he would say, "operational trouble, political trouble, Governor's Office trouble." As chief deputy I appointed Deborah Bronow, a 25-year EDD employee, who started her career as an unemployment insurance examiner. After a few months, others at EDD came to me and announced, "You know, Bronow disagrees with 50 percent of your ideas for the department." "Precisely", I replied, "that's why she's in the director's office, as a check on ideas I have or the Governor's Office has that aren't so good." Later, when Geneva Robinson, another 25-year EDD employee, became chief deputy, she assumed a similar role, torpedoing ideas that made no sense on the front-line level.

The first finance director in the Davis Administration, Tim Gage, was accessible, humble and open to the thoughts of others - even though he was Harvard University '74. He was replaced by former legislator Steve Peace, who yelled a lot. When EDD approached Peace about our technology projects, he made clear he knew more than our technology staff (he didn't). In his belligerence, he almost undermined a key operational improvement to the state's unemployment insurance system.

2. Don't spend one minute on reorganization schemes or reorganization consultants: In each new administration, agency secretaries and department directors, encouraged by management consultants, feel compelled to reorganize their departments: rewriting mission statements, changing report requirements and branch structures. What a waste. The mission statements are vacuous documents, and shifting reporting requirements rarely affects the quality or integrity of front-line services. Krisman always asked of a reorganization proposal, "How does this impact the job seeker in Glendale?" and the answer was obvious: It didn't.

The organizational retreats "facilitated" by consultants should be eliminated. At one, the consultants led participants in a half-day, line-by-line dissection of a mission statement - as if they were studying the Talmud, not a three-paragraph, vague description of goals. Department leadership will learn about mission from front-line staff in Modesto or Long Beach, not management consultants.

3. Reject the culture of meetings: George David Kiefer, a member of the Schwarzenegger transition team, once wrote a book, "The Strategy of Meetings," whose cover read, "Meetings are where careers are made." Not a good idea in state government, where meetings are the stock in trade and have led to "pre-meetings" and even "pre-pre-meetings". There is value in face-to-face communication - Gov. Gray Davis hoped to get one good idea for the time spent in a meeting. However, in state government, the culture of meetings has gone too far and needs to be reined in - otherwise as Billy Crystal in "City Slickers" said of his job involving a lot of meetings, "I sell air."

4. Emphasize program integrity in public benefit programs: In 1966, New York Mayor John Lindsay appointed as his first commissioner of social services Mitchell Ginsberg, a liberal social welfare professor at Columbia. Ginsberg believed that welfare eligibility rules were unnecessary and moved to open welfare to anyone who applied (the New York Daily News termed him "Come-and-get-it Ginsberg"). The welfare rolls soared, a political backlash resulted and the city was forced to cut services to welfare recipients. The poor, whom Ginsberg allegedly was trying to help, were the ones hardest hit. The lesson for public administrators: Take a cavalier attitude toward program integrity, and the credibility and political viability of the program will sharply decline - hurting recipients the most.

The state government administers a variety of public benefit programs in health care, employment insurance and workers compensation; and EDD operates two of the state's main benefit funds - the $6 billion unemployment insurance fund and the $2.6 billion disability insurance fund. We had several experiences that highlight the importance of program integrity.

In 2002, the unemployment insurance program was hit by an increase in cases of identity fraud - claimants stealing Social Security numbers and filing fraudulent claims. Though the program took actions (adding questions to our claims script, immediately cutting off payments to recipients with suspect Social Security numbers), we were slower than we should have been in shifting resources to address this fraud. We also were slow in responding to a television segment portraying EDD as sending checks to anyone who gave us a phony name. The program's credibility took a hit.

These days, state benefit programs have limited staff and must meet a variety of goals, particularly the processing of claims without lengthy delays. Always, though, anti-fraud should be a priority.

5. Maintain the small-town accessibility of state government: Often, I hear from Californians who are impressed that they can call EDD and get a live body answering their questions on an unpaid unemployment insurance claim, or disability insurance claim, or a job search application. In fact, at EDD, you can call people at all levels and get through. In the director's office, my practice in the first months was to take all calls, with no screening. This changed slightly, only after I discovered that a good proportion of calls to the director were from unemployment insurance claimants - who wanted to know why their checks were late. Still, I tried to take most calls and return any missed calls or e-mails the same day.

In the Davis administration, director accessibility was mixed. Some directors and agency secretaries pointedly kept you waiting if you went to their offices. They had their assistants call to "schedule a phone time" rather than pick up the phone themselves. They insisted on being addressed by their titles. These officials were ridiculous figures - especially when juxtaposed with the small-town ambience and unpretentiousness that is still much of Sacramento.

6. Above all, respect the professionalism and sense of mission of the bureaucracy: In 2001, I appeared on Bay Area National Public Radio with one of our tax branch administrators. "Big campaign donors are able to influence tax determinations," the host said at one point, and I was taken aback. This just isn't how things are done in Sacramento - in the Davis administration or in the Wilson or Deukmajian administrations. Nobody would even think of tinkering with the tax authority, or with most other state contracting functions. The sense of professionalism among the state bureaucracies is too great.

I met with a large information-technology firm, whose representatives asked whether they should hire a Friend of Davis lobbyist - someone who knew people in the Governor's Office. "Don't waste your money," I recommended. "In state government, nearly all contracting decisions are made by staff. Spend your time getting to know staff and what they want to accomplish." Beyond professionalism, most departments have a strong sense of mission, whether it be protecting California's forests, or building California's highways, or paying disability insurance to Californians unable to work. When Krisman and I traveled to local EDD offices, the experience was always uplifting. Though state employees receive set pay rates, no matter what the quality of service, many state employees go out of their way to ensure high quality service. The EDD office in El Centro opened at 4 a.m. to accommodate the work schedule of local farmworkers, and the Modesto EDD office raised private funds to augment veterans employment services. Individual EDD employees go beyond 9-to-5 in services: On his own time, a disability insurance claims examiner devised a reference system for claims examiners (a consulting firm would have charged $100,000), and a tax auditor volunteered time to reduce backlog.

To be in a leadership role is to be a steward of a state department. Whether for four months or four years or eight years, your time in Sacramento leadership is limited. At the very least, you want to take no action undermining the department's service ethos.

I lived in San Francisco throughout my years in Sacramento and car-pooled with my colleague, Max Forman. We crossed the Bay Bridge and proceeded up I-80 past UC Berkeley and Golden Gate Fields, across the Carquinez Strait and through Fairfield, past the old Nut Tree complex until Tower Bridge and the sight of the state Capitol. In the nearly five years, not once did the sight of the white gleaming Capitol fail to be an inspiration and make me appreciate the opportunity to be in state government.

In October 2003, in a final meeting with department directors after the recall, the governor advised us that we all would be replaced. Despite talk of bipartisanship and working together, we'd all be gone soon ("Any day after the first month that you're still in office, consider a gift.") Yet none of us, from the governor down, has reason to complain. "None of us is entitled to or owed a state position," Davis emphasized. "In a state of over 35 million people, each of us should consider ourselves fortunate to have spent time in California government."

Michael Bernick was director of the Employment Development Department from April 1999 to February 2004. Prior to his appointment, he was counsel to the HNTB Corp. and has returned to that position. He also is a fellow in work force issues at the Milken Institute.