Redirect: The view from inside the stable

In response to yesterday’s post about the troubles in the Vermont Training Program, I got a nice call from Lucy Leriche, Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which I believe I referred to as the Augean Stable of state government.

Well, nice to know somebody’s paying attention.

She made some good points, and some not-so-convincing points. Overall, I have to say my view of ACCD hasn’t changed much.

The #1 item she brought to my attention: “the reboot.”

The Vermont Training Program was overhauled in 2014. …The Auditor began his inquiry and report in 2015. What he had to work with was data from before the reboot. We have made a lot of changes, but the report is based on old information.

Hoffer’s response: he was aware of the reboot, and considered it in his report. His view: the reboot made some changes, but fell short in many ways. “It still relies on self-certifications [by applicants],” he wrote in an email. “The program should do some independent validation, as is recommended by the State’s Internal Control guidance. It’s a matter of adopting best practices in order to be accountable. These are taxpayer funds.”

Over to you, Ms. Leriche:

The Legislature made it clear they didn’t want us to build a big bureaucracy. They wanted as many dollars to go to grants as possible. If we did everything Doug Hoffer suggested, it would take at least one full-time person. That would take a lot of money away from grants.

Okay, let’s see here. They didn’t want “a big bureaucracy,” and following Hoffer’s suggestions would take “at least one full-time person.” That doesn’t sound like “a big bureaucracy” to me. It sounds more like a reasonable investment in protecting taxpayer funds.

(It should be pointed out that the lack of oversight isn’t ACCD’s fault; the Legislature is to blame for allowing VTP to be much less accountable than, as Hoffer pointed out in his report, your average social-service program.)

Leriche also slammed Hoffer’s report for being “full of hypotheticals, a lot of conjecture, but not a lot of concrete examples.” Mr. Hoffer?

This is a curious statement. By their own admission, there is no independent validation so it is impossible to identify examples of misappropriation. The absence of documentation is not really a very strong defense.

In case it’s not clear, Hoffer is referring to “independent validation” of a grantee’s performance. There is a thorough up-front evaluation of applications for grants, which was improved in the 2014 reboot, but there is still a lack of follow-up to make sure the grantee actually did what it promised to do. And that lack of documentation made it near impossible for Hoffer to find “concrete examples” of abuse.

Another point. This was not a full audit by Hoffer; it was a review of VTP systems. His aim was not to document abuses of the program; it was to evaluate ACCD’s process. He found the process wanting. He didn’t count the horses, he simply pointed out that the barn door is unlocked.

Leriche also countered Hoffer’s point about the number of grants that went to Vermont’s biggest businesses — the likes of Keurig Green Mountain, Dealer.com, Mylan, and IBM. She notes that large businesses are more likely to offer the kinds of training opportunities VTP is designed to encourage, such as advanced manufuactiring and IT. True enough; on the other hand, big businesses are also much more likely to have the resources and expertise to craft successful applications. They are accustomed to playing this game, and hence are more likely to win approval.

That is, admittedly, speculative on my part. And it was unfair of me to use the term “crony capitalism,” with its inference of insider dealing. I doubt that VTP staff are deliberately leaning toward big businesses; I do believe those large employers are best positioned to cash in, whether or not they are the most worthy.

In sum, the reboot did make significant improvements to VTP. But I have to agree with Hoffer: it remains far too vulnerable to abuse. The Legislature’s resistance to creating “a big bureaucracy” is shortsighted at best, and a tacit giveaway to business at worst.

And I suspect that the same dynamic at work in VTP is also at work in other ACCD programs.

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4 thoughts on “Redirect: The view from inside the stable

  1. Ken Horseman

    Full disclosure here — I worked for the Agency of Commerce of 16 years and was one of the VTP application reviewers after the “reboot” process was implemented. Several key points to understand: first, when you speak of VTP “staff” it is a director and an assistant. And the director’s position is vacant due to a recent resignation. (Five of eight senior staffers in the Department of Economic Development within ACCD have resigned in the past year.) Second, the omission of post-grant accountability IS the fault of the legislature, and if it was in the law ACCD does not have the resources to fulfill that task. Third, I was the staffer tasked with making sure all companies were aware of VTP and other resources and programs. Understand that I was THE ONLY state staffer whose responsibilities were to promote resources and programs for all of Vermont. DED specifically and ACCD generally is severely under resourced. Don’t take my word for it — check staffing in the Departments of Economic Development in adjacent states and factor in our smaller size. We don’t invest in “jobs jobs jobs” — the political candidate mantra and what every governor has said for the last several decades. Fourth, VTP invests in workers — not companies. It improves their training and skills which they can take with them for whomever they work. VTP works and the director and assistant do the best job they can. It’s a great program that can be improved but it needs the resources that woefully have been given lip service by the political appointees (Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Commissioner) and the legislature for years. We need MORE tools in the economic development toolbox — I hope we wake up. But I’m not optimistic.

    Reply
    1. Faith King

      The lack of actual staff resources given VTP is depressing – but part of a bigger picture of short-sighted, politically-expedient and flinty cheap governance that characterizes the State’s current path. I.e. Austerity. Good point re: these being grants for worker training, hopefully creating more skills that said workers can than carry into the open market. Several comments though: (1) Shouldn’t some of the large, successful companies receiving state grants be doing that themselves? Out of their coffers? Isn’t it considered ‘good business’ to develop the skill base of your staff. Just saying. (2) When the State pays a company like Keurig to train it’s staff, let’s not be disingenuous here. Better trained staff is a net boon to the company, too. They are most certainly getting something out of this. I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing. But let’s be honest. VTP is certainly investing in companies as well. One, by assuming a cost they might have to take on themselves (absent this grant) and two, by paying for this company to develop one of their “assets” – namely, their workforce. Sadly, I suspect many of these better trained workers may be making-tracks out of State (particularly the 200 new jobless at the Waterbury plant)…..hence the high net migration figures I’ve seen.

      Reply
      1. Ken Horseman

        You are absolutely right that companies should understand that training is an investment that benefits the company in better performance and productivity. Most don’t. VTP , in my experience, is a catalyst to encourage companies to do the right thing that they otherwise would not do. It’s just a bit of a push. What goes unrecognized are the companies, though in the minority, that understand that they’re success comes on the strength of their people and do invest in training — without any state assistance. But it remains good public policy to help Vermont workers raise their wages.

  2. Brooke Paige

    “Don’t Worry, Be Happy after all it’s just Taxpayer Money!

    Keurig, IBM, Dealer.com, Mylan… aren’t some of these cutting (or threatening to cut) jobs here in Vermont due to the vagaries of global business conditions.. It seems a little bit like bowling – “set ‘um up just to knock ‘um down.” Wouldn’t the money be better spent by “investing” in small businesses that are more likely to hang around Vermont rather than travel with the winds of global market changes?

    Reply

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