Thursday, October 21st, 2010 - 6:32
Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 07:21
"It would be incredibly depressing if big lessons didn't come out of this," says Laura Chick, the Inspector General for California's Recovery Act programs.
As she watches over California's Recovery Act spending, Laura Chick has to have a "tough outer skin," she told us. “There’s a great deal of resistance and hostility toward my office, my position and my work.
“There’s a culture up here that says we do not want to air out our dirty laundry and there’s a lot of energy that goes into covering up mediocrity. Some people have a definition of loyalty to the Governor as making him look good. I push back and say 'that’s not the Governor’s own definition of loyalty. If you try to cover something up, it will come back in a way that will haunt you. If you discover problems and fix them, that’s when government looks the best.'”
Chick has focused on fixing government problems, both in her eight year stint as the feisty and determined controller of Los Angeles and in her current IG position, which she took on in April of 2009. She gets action – partly because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pays attention to what she does. “My dream of having a chief executive take my reports seriously has been fulfilled,” says Chick (photo at left).
In a wide ranging recent conversation with her, Chick showed herself to be a big fan of the transparency and accountability provisions of the Recovery Act and passionate about improving government by analyzing what went right and wrong.
Q. What are the major lessons you’ve learned watching the Recovery Act being implemented in California?
Chick: I’ve really seen how harmful it is having government in silos. Harmful and obstructionist turf mentality doesn’t just slow things down. It messes with the end results.
Q. Could you give us an example?
Chick: With the weatherization money, there wasn’t the kind of coordination between DOE, HHS and HUD. People are wringing their hands about how slowly this is going, but the right people at the right federal and state departments weren’t integrating and coordinating. Why did we focus on single family homes instead of focusing more on subsidized low-income housing?
Q. Have governments done enough self-examination on the results of Recovery Act spending?
Chick: I am adamantly critical of government at every level for the lack of robust regular and frequent self-evaluation. I used to define my job as city controller as the person who asked and answered the questions. How are we doing? How can we do it better?
One big state department that receives Recovery dollars said to me, “We could be looking a little deeper at the results, but the feds don’t ask us to and why would we do what the feds don’t ask us to do?” There’s a certain amount of laziness.
They’re also wary. They think, “If we come up with a bad result, maybe we won’t get money next year.”
Q. What kind of improvements in Recovery Act spending could have been made up front?
Chick: I noticed right away that there weren’t the kinds of integrated plans at the front end that laid out strategy. Early on, the California Primary Care Association was wringing its hands because they had money for construction, but they hit a roadblock with the Historic Preservation office. There was a backlog of weeks and weeks of work piling up. This problem could have been anticipated, but no one bothered to think about this as a potential slowdown. With some creative thinking, they were able to get rid of the backlog.
Q. What’s the moral of that story?
Chick: It’s not a question of getting rid of historic preservation guidelines or of having too much regulation. It’s making a list of all the steps a construction project goes through. Then you can integrate processes and do things in a good logical common sense way. What the Recovery Act has exposed at every level of government is gross inefficiency and a lack of common sense.
Q. Are there areas of the Recovery Act that have particularly impressed you?
Chick: I’m most impressed with the dollars that are linking environmental goals and the creation of new jobs. This makes government a much more successful player in economic development than it has been in the past. I’ve criticized the weatherization program for not expanding to include affordable housing, but the workers who were trained will continue to find jobs. The spending on highways and high-speed rail is putting construction workers to work and leaving a legacy of improved infrastructure. And the research. People want immediate gratification, but some of this is strengthening our economy going forward. I’d go toe-to-toe with anyone who says there aren’t positive results.
Q. Are there ways that the Recovery Act has improved government?
Chick: There’s much more contact between the different levels of government. That’s a very positive thing. Local government is able to communicate to the feds what’s not working. In the first six months, particularly, there was unprecedented contact. States were pushing back and the feds were rewriting guidelines. There’s lots of communication and we have unprecedented data. The Inspector Generals also have much more of a presence out at the local level and that’s not all onerous. They’re working with the states to correct problems and address issues. I’m just hoping that with the emphasis on transparency there will be very good public analysis done.
Q. Any parting thoughts?
Chick: The transparency and accountability measures are targeted at helping government at every level learn lessons and improve. We really need an active and energetic exploration of lessons learned. It would be incredibly depressing if big lessons didn’t come out of this. It has to be about more than preventing stupid spending and waste. It’s got to be about government coming out of this better.