Too Many Cooks Equals No Broth

Sorry to do this to you first thing in the morning, but it’s time for a reading and math comprehension test!

Take a look at this table, and see if any numbers jump out at you.

AuditorTable 7.16

The abbreviations in the first column are for three departments in state government: Human Resources, Information & Innovation, and Finance & Management. And the answer, or at least the answer I’m looking for, is on the DHR line.

The Department of Human Resources has 25 supervisors and 82 classified employees. That’s a rather stunning ratio of one supervisor for every 3.28 supervisees.

There is no absolute ideal ratio; it depends on many factors. But rarely, if ever, is 1:3 a reasonable figure.

There may be perfectly good explanations for DHR’s ratio. But to the outside eye, it looks like featherbedding.

This table comes to us courtesy of State Auditor Doug Hoffer. It’s included in his latest performance audit, which exposes a dismaying case of administrative sloppiness in state government. In those three departments, administrators routinely failed to conduct annual performance reviews with their staff.

… we concluded that only 27 of 181 classified employees in the three departments received an annual performance evaluation in 2015. Furthermore, a non-statistical sample of 20 of 154 classified employees who did not receive an annual evaluation in 2015 revealed that nine had not received an annual performance evaluation for more than five years, and three with hire dates in 2013, 2012, and 1998 had no record of an annual evaluation.

This, despite the fact that “Vermont state policy and statute requires that performance evaluations be completed annually for classified employees.”

(“Classified” doesn’t mean “top secret.” It basically refers to regular, non-political staff.)

The most appalling thing is that one of the departments neglecting its statutory duty is responsible for personnel matters across all of state government.

And it doesn’t know the statutory requirements for its own operation?

Despite the fact that it seems to be hip-deep in supervisors?

What the hell are they doing all day? And if they don’t know their own jobs, how can we trust them to ride herd on the rest of the government?

Ahem. Pardon my rant. But c’mon, even if there was no statutory requirement for performance reviews, it is standard management practice. DHR’s own policy, which it routinely flouts, says that annual reviews are “essential to a productive agency/department.”

Annual reviews give employees a clear sense of their performance and the expectations they should strive to meet. (They can also provide a foundation for bonus pay or promotions.) They force supervisors to achieve clarity about where their department is going and what their staff are expected to do. Also, worst case, it builds a paper trail for potential disciplinary action or even dismissal if a staffer consistently fails to meet clearly-communicated standards.

Plus, as Hoffer notes, it’s even more important in the public sector:

“… state government is primarily a service provider and state employees are our most important resource. Taxpayers have a right to expect the best and workers have a right to expect the guidance and support necessary to ensure good productivity.”

Some supervisors explained that they frequently give verbal feedback to staffers. But this, in the words of the audit report, is not “a substitute for a documented annual performance review.”

This may seem like a nitpicky, insidery thing, but it’s not. Without a measure of administrative rigor, of which annual evaluations are a key component, an organization is likely to drift, lose focus, waste effort, and ultimately fall short of achieving its purpose.

Or, shall we say, fail to serve you, the taxpayer.

But don’t worry, the fix is on the way — if only after the audit was shared with the three departments.

Senior officials in DII and F&M indicated that annual performance evaluations were not a priority in their departments, but they would be going forward. DHR hired an additional field administrator in late 2015 who has been working to improve the process to ensure annual performance evaluations are completed.

Aside from the fact that DHR felt compelled to add another supervisor to its top-heavy roster, this is a good thing. What’s unfortunate is that it took an audit to force these public servants to do their damn jobs.


7 thoughts on “Too Many Cooks Equals No Broth

  1. Kay Trudell

    Perhaps you should also note that this also applies to the school system. As a longtime teacher from a family of teachers, I know first-hand that the complaint is universal among teachers that we were very top heavy in administrators compared to actual teachers in the classroom.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Gee, as a matter of fact, economist Art Woolf has a column in today’s Free Press indicating quite the opposite: that we’re pretty lean on administration, and that our high school costs are due almost entirely to a low student:teacher ratio.

      Anyway, I didn’t note it in my post because it wasn’t part of Hoffer’s audit.

      1. Kay Trudell

        John, I also read Woolf’s article, but unless the way they determine the student to teacher ratio has changed, that does not mean actual number of students in a classroom to actual number of teachers teaching in a classroom. It means all educator adults in a school system to number of children in a school system. That means the student to teacher ratio INCLUDES all administrative staff who never set foot in a classroom, the school nurse, the home-school administrator or teacher, the diversity counselor, the social work caseworker, all guidance counselors, all learning specialists who are not classroom teachers, remedial reading tutors, and possibly (not sure about this one) all instructional paraprofessionals. It is a very misleading figure. The average actual class size in Vermont schools is not 10.6. Teachers would be in heaven if it was. As I say, the method of calculating this could have changed, but it can be misleading. Having said that, I do agree with Woolf that Vermont can cut school costs. But I don’t want them to do it by punishing the actual teaching teacher in the classroom who is the most important link in the instructional chain (after the students, of course) by making their class sizes much bigger. If the way this student-teacher ratio is calculated has changed, please enlighten me.

  2. Steve Beck

    And there is that Department of Innovation. That is truly the buzz word for all things liberally democratic. I push it into neoliberally democratic. Innovation, yep we gotta innovate.

    1. Dave Katz

      I think I’d actually prefer a Department Of Just Keepin’ Our Necessary Shit At Least Marginally Functional. “Innovation” is pure buzz for yet more executive-class privilege theft.


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