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.