Government efficiency is usually an oxymoron — that is, if the government is running something, it’s not likely to be very efficient.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be less inefficiency in government. Pursuing such is a worthy endeavor for those in elected office or those hired for top-level government jobs.
It was encouraging, therefore, to read an op-ed column this past week jointly authored by Shad White, the young reform-minded Mississippi state auditor, and Laura Jackson, the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, the agency responsible for paying a lot of the state government’s bills.
The problem White and Jackson identify is that many of the estimated 204 government agencies, boards and commissions operate their own “backroom” offices. That is, they each hire their own employees to handle payroll and other accounting functions, human resources, information technology and travel services.
Besides the inefficiency of having so many employees performing the same functions but in small bites at a time, White and Jackson say another problem with the current decentralized approach is that it invites theft and fraud. That’s because in many of these operations, one or two people are doing all of the business functions, thus eliminating some of the checks and balances that are prudent whenever money is being handled.
The authors say that “it is usually not the large, well-staffed agency or commission where theft occurs, but the smaller, less regulated one. It’s the ones with less oversight and procedural safeguards, with fewer eyeballs watching the money. When fraud happens, entities with less than 100 employees have a median loss of $200,000, while entities with more than 100 employees have a median loss of $104,000.”
What White and Jackson recommend is a consolidation of administration services, in which agencies, boards and commissions would share backroom staffing in what might be described as “business office hubs.” Such centralization would be especially beneficial to the smaller boards and commissions, not only saving on staffing but also providing more expertise in purchasing, technology and other vital functions.
It would also make it easier for the Audit Department to keep everyone honest by reducing the number of money-handling operations that it monitors.
Given all of these advantages, why hasn’t this kind of administrative consolidation happened so far? The authors don’t say.
A fair assumption would be that most government entities don’t like to give up control or reduce staff, no matter how inefficient or susceptible to theft the arrangement might be.
It will be difficult to overcome that resistance. A previous effort to create an Office of Shared Services, such as White and Jackson are advocating, failed to get through the Legislature. They should, though, keep pushing the idea. It just makes good business sense.