By Barry Rascovar
They never seem to give Bobby Neall easy assignments. Now Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. wants the former Anne Arundel County Executive, former state senator and former state delegate to take on another near-mission impossible: reorganize state government.
It sounds like a simple task but it isn’t – not when Maryland’s government spends $42 billion a year and employs over 80,000 entrenched bureaucrats and nearly 10,000 contract workers.
Compounding Neall’s assignment: Republican Hogan’s motives are deeply distrusted by the Democratic legislature. Any move that smacks of cutting government operations to pay for election-year tax cuts will be buried by legislative Democrats.
Neall says Hogan hasn’t asked him to slash government spending to make way for voter-appealing tax cuts. Instead, “this is something the governor wants to be part of his contribution – modernizing government and make it perform better, and maybe in the process saving money.”
The idea, according to Neal, is to come up with “a new platform capable of doing more and delivering better services and hopefully at lower unit prices. The businessman in the governor is coming out. It’s not just about budget cuts to make tax cuts possible.”
State government certainly could use a good shake-up.
There hasn’t been a major reorganization in 46 years, when Marvin Mandel, taking his cue from proposals put forth by the 1968 Constitutional Convention, took 248 unwieldy agencies and boxed them into 12 cabinet-level departments.
Suddenly the governor, not individual fiefdoms, controlled state government. It was one of Mandel’s great achievements, giving Maryland government a modern organization that was manageable and the envy of other states.
While Mandel’s basic structure has stood the test of time, the state’s operations again have spread its wings, becoming ungainly, duplicative and inefficient.
Neall sees his main opportunity in an area that would avoid headlines: government’s “backroom” operations – the massive services and supplies needed for the daily activities of 90,000 state workers.
“Having a Department of Veterans Affairs is fine,” he noted, “but it may not need its own personnel office, its own purchasing office, its own procurement office.”
Centralized backroom services might make sense, especially in an age of computers and two-way video communications. But it can still be controversial – witness the furor among parole office workers when personnel functions were removed from their workplace and consolidated at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Maryland government also has a reputation for lagging behind the times in information technology. Witness the disgracefully botched software to handle the Affordable Care Act and the continual IT screw-ups in social services computer operations.
Neall diplomatically notes, “Maryland state government has never been good at using technology. We’ve lost a lot of ground.”
Improved IT operations may hold the key to a leap forward in government efficiency and customer satisfaction but Neall’s efforts could encounter a major barrier – the costs involved.
Maryland’s Parole Commission, for instance is awash in paperwork. Boxes of inmate records are piled to the ceiling in large storage rooms. Converting these legal documents to computer-accessible records and protecting this data from cyber theft won’t be cheap or rapid.
Neall sees his main job as taking a hard-eyed look at state operations and then answering this question: “What’s the best way to deliver services to citizens today?”
For example, “We no longer get all our clothes in a clothing store; we shop online off a website.”
Process, not overhaul
Neall is not talking about wiping out entire departments and turning government into an amorphous internet presence. Instead, he wants to zero in on how state employees and agencies go about their jobs: “How they organize their work, the processes and the time sensitivity.”
In many areas, government is unnecessarily slow and cumbersome, irritating the heck out of constituents. It may be time to learn from the private sector.
There are private companies that will deliver to you your birth and death certificates in a matter of hours – for a fee. But ask state government for that same information and it could take weeks.
A cottage industry has sprung up due to the frustration people encounter waiting hours in long lines at the Motor Vehicle Administration. For a fee, these companies will take care of everything for you. While there have been improvements at the MVA, it still isn’t market-sensitive or people-friendly.
Those are the types of efficiency changes Neall has in mind.
He’s hoping it won’t involve wholesale reorganizations that would raise hackles among legislators, unions and other interest groups.
So the chances of a Mandel-style re-shuffling of powerful state agencies aren’t likely. Indeed, most state operations will look the same to Marylanders.
“The storefront stays if you can deliver products in a timely fashion, create a sense of urgency and customer satisfaction,” Neall says.
Throughout his career, Neall has been recognized as an insightful budget analyst skilled in dissecting complicated business and government operations and then suggesting cost-saving efficiencies.
He’s worked for Johns Hopkins Medicine for a quarter-century, the last 12 as head of Hopkins’ managed-care organization for the poor and near-poor. Priority Partners is the largest MCO in the state, but when Neall took over it was $10 million in the red. Within a year, he had eliminated the red ink.
Neall is trusted and respected by both Republicans and Democrats in Annapolis. He knows the magnitude of his task.
If anyone can pull this off it is Bobby Neall. The goal he has set is modernization, not wholesale reorganization.
It may not be sexy, but Neall would be happy to see a quiet, successful implementation that most people don’t even notice.