County government operations to get external review
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has agreed in principle to hire a consultant to conduct an efficiency study of government operations. On May 7, 2008, the Board directed County staff to prepare a scope of work for such a study, which will be similar to a resource utilization study conducted by the County’s school system last year.
Podcast produced by Charlottesville Tomorrow * Player by Odeo
Listen using player above or download the podcast:
Assistant County Executive Tom Foley said the need for an external study has been triggered in part because of a decline in County tax revenues. He spent several minutes reviewing the ways County staff currently review their performance and effectiveness. For example, four departments are currently pursuing independent evaluation of their performance under what are known as the
Baldrige National Quality Program
criteria, which Foley said could lead to efficiency plans for each department. Foley pointed to the County’s AAA bond-rating as one tangible measure of the County’s financial health, and lauded the Board’s transition to a five-year financial plan, and said the County’s Program and Service Review is paying dividends.
“That has actually resulted in almost $800,000 worth of savings right away this year,” Foley said. “Not as a result of an outside study but [as a result of] this internal review.”
However, Foley said staff was fully supportive of an external review, and presented two alternatives to the Board. First, the County could conduct a one-time study similar to what County schools. The other option would be to conduct a “more-focused” review of the work processes of individual departments. The staff report lists the options as follows:
1) A one-time general overview of all County operations: Such a one-time study would closely resemble the school division’s 2007 Resource Utilization Study by broadly examining how the County utilizes its dollars, people and facilities to achieve results. This type of review would best capture improvements or savings associated with inter-departmental processes and costs. However, because of the broad nature of this study and the County’s wide range of provided services, this type of review will likely not examine detailed department specific processes, though it may assist in identifying departments that could benefit the most from an external evaluation conducted exclusively within a department or function. Finally, it is worth noting such a study is unlikely to be completed as quickly as the school division’s review, again due to the County’s more diverse mission and group of departments.
2) An ongoing review process focused on individual functional areas or departments: As an alternative, the Board could utilize an approach similar to what certain localities in Northern Virginia have recently begun where a few departments are selected each year for a more detailed external review. Only a few departments per year are reviewed due to the studies’ more complex and unique scopes of work and to allow for the management capacity required to implement each study’s recommendations. To accommodate this, studies are staggered over time. While this study would not provide an informative review of inter-departmental processes and costs, it better addresses improvements in departments’ specialized day-to-day operations.
Foley recommended the one-time broad overview while the continuing the County’s internal review process, and said his staff would next prepare a scope of work to be approved by the Board.
(Rio) was adamant that he wanted the external review to provide guidance on how to align the County’s goals with its available resources.
“The question shouldn’t just be what are we doing inefficiently and where can we save money,” Slutzky said. “It should also be where are we failing to deliver services and other things that are within not just the wishlist of what we might-could do but rather what we ought to be doing and we’re not.”
(Rivanna) said the consultant should not get involved in policy decisions. Supervisor
(Jack Jouett) also opposed Slutzky’s request.
“The amount of services that are being delivered is a policy issue that I don’t think an outside expert is going to comment on,” Rooker said. Foley said the consultant might recommend “more effective” ways of delivering a particular service, but would likely not comment on the validity of one service over another.
But Slutzky said his concern is that the Board has allocated the County’s financial resources across a wide range of activities, and an external review of those allocations might be beneficial.
“There may well be things that an outside party could say we should be doing instead of some of the things we’re choosing to do,” Slutzky said. “If we ask the consultant to merely tell us how to most cost effectively deliver within the shackles of what we’ve chosen to address, they’re going to miss out on some trade-offs.”
For instance, Slutzky suggested a consultant might recommend downzoning as a more cost-effective way of meeting the County’s comprehensive plan goal of protecting the rural areas.
The suggestion prompted Rooker to make a motion that would limit any external review to what staff had recommended. “I don’t think we want to retain an efficiency firm to come in and tell us what roads should be built in the County, whether or not we should have expanded library service… those are policy decisions.”
Slutzky sought to make a competing motion to give the consultant the flexibility to make policy decisions, but could not find a second. Rooker’s motion to direct staff to prepare a scope of work carried 6-0.
(Scottsville) said more should be done to encourage county employees to make suggestions to improve the process. Supervisor
(White Hall) said the consultant should be expected to make policy recommendations. Boyd said he would like to see the County eventually develop its own internal audit department, but did not seek to make that part of the external review process.
Foley told Charlottesville Tomorrow he hoped to bring the scope of work back to the Board no later than their first meeting in July.