Boxes on a chart
Another state government reorganization is on tap
The new governor took office in hard times. A crippling recession had the nation and Nevada in its grip. Economic recovery was uppermost in the governor’s plans. Thus did Richard Bryan become the only Nevada governor in the last 30 years not to reorganize state government.
“Frankly, it was not on our radar screen,” Bryan said last week.
Instead of reorganizing, Bryan’s priority program at the 1983 Nevada Legislature was creation of new state tourism and economic development programs. In their previous incarnations, Bryan said, those programs were inadequate.
“I’d been to several different events where Nevada’s performance was utterly pathetic in that arena,” he said. So during the 1982 campaign, Bryan released a position paper titled Gaming—and So Much More, the title intended to signal his intention to diversify the state’s economy beyond gambling to give Nevada more protection from future recessions. In 1983, legislators agreed to create new tourism and economic development agencies with commissions composed of leaders in those fields to guide policy.
Gov. Brian Sandoval is the latest governor to reorganize state government, and restructuring Bryan’s tourism and economic development programs are among his proposals.
In the early 1990s, the state historic preservation office was under the Conservation and Natural Resources Department, the State Archives and State Library were both were in the Department of Administration, and the state’s museums and historical agencies were latched together in their own agency, Museums and History.
Then Gov. Robert Miller’s administration reorganized state government. All of these cultural agencies were pulled out of their places in state government and centralized in a new agency, the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Gov. Brian Sandoval is now recommending that the Department of Cultural Affairs be broken up. Historic preservation would go back to Conservation, the state library and archives would go back to Administration, and Museums and History would be moved to the Commission on Tourism.
Reorganization is one of those words, like reform, that carries a favorable connotation. But which reorganization constitutes reform—Gov. Miller’s pulling all the cultural agencies together or Gov. Sandoval’s scattering them around again?
Try this one: When Gov. Kenny Guinn reorganized state government, he split up the Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety into separate agencies. DMV was principally an administrative and ministerial agency. Public Safety was a law enforcement agency; it contains the highway patrol, homeland security, sex offender registration, etc.
Now Gov. Sandoval wants to put DMV and Public Safety back together in the same agency—and add the highway department. At a luncheon in Carson City, one state agency administrator quipped that the new agency could be called the Department of Asphalt.
Since 1979, four governors—Robert List, Bob Miller, Kenny Guinn, and Jim Gibbons—have reorganized state government. And now a fifth, Sandoval, wants to do it again.
“My budget recommends the consolidation, elimination, or centralization of 20 departments and agencies,” the governor told the Nevada Legislature. “From the consolidation of the Departments of Personnel, Information Technology, Public Works and Administration to the smaller but nonetheless important streamlining of energy policy, we will make state government more efficient and more responsive.”
Of course, governors propose, but legislatures dispose, and it is uncertain that Sandoval’s recommendations will be approved. Sheer repetition of reorganizations has lent a certain cynicism to the process among legislators. Reorganization, it appears, is like housework and sex—it never stays done. This is partly due to lack of institutional memory in a state where there is rapid population turnover and state government cannot hang onto its people. “I don’t think many people around the governor realize how often reorganizing has been done, or how recently,” said one lobbyist who has a long memory. He said the same thing afflicts journalism, pointing to a Reno Gazette-Journal editorial last month that called reorganization of state government “long overdue.”
“How can something we never stop doing get overdue?” he asked. “Didn’t that newspaper editorialize on Gibbons’ reorganization, too?”
Legislators question whether moving boxes around on an administrative chart actually saves money or provides better service. If a lot of small agencies are put into one big agency—one of the goals of the Sandoval reorganization—does that consolidation provide better government? If a big agency is broken up and scattered into other agencies—another, opposing, goal of the Sandoval reorganization—does that breakup provide better government?
The Department of Administration—which contains the governor’s budget office—would absorb information technology, the Public Works Board, the Nevada State Library and Archives, and the personnel functions of the business and industry, taxation, education and agriculture agencies. Is it the historical experience of government that bigger is better?
In his message to the legislature last month, the governor said, “The public does not think of revenue as yours or mine. All of it, every last penny, is theirs. Whether it’s in this bucket or that bucket does not matter.” But he argues that it does matter whether an agency is in this box or that box on a chart.
“They’re cutting the budgets of agencies, they’re reshuffling and then attributing the ‘savings’ to the moves,” one member of a legislative budget committee said, signaling the use of quotation marks around savings with the traditional fingers in the air.
Political scientist Fred Lokken says reorganization is a buzzword that sounds nice and creates the illusion of action, but whether it actually accomplishes anything requires independent assessment. It’s a mistake to take an administration’s word for it.
For example, KRNV ran a story headlined “Thinning State Agencies to Tighten the State’s Budget Belt” though it is far from certain that the reorganization will do any such thing. Few if any reporters sought independent verification of administration claims of savings that will be realized by moving agencies around.
Lokken also said a reorganization has to be planned carefully to avoid major morale problems.
One Republican legislator says the Sandoval reorganization in particular has problems: “The other times, governors put together panels or committees of business and labor people to plan the reorganization. The plan was not taken to the legislature until the second session [the second legislature of a governor’s term] because planning is so important. As far as we can tell, this [Sandoval] reorganization was planned for seven or eight weeks by the governor’s staff.”
Lokken said if there is not verifiable savings or improvement in service, reorganizations can actually make things worse.
“Show the savings and demonstrate that this hasn’t caused morale problems or now will somehow impact services that we’re rendering,” he said. “I think in previous reorganizations we’ve sometimes seen both happen. I mean, you wind up driving good employees out because the job just gets too frustrating. And literally, what’s the bottom line? In the budget, what are they showing as the savings, as a result, or the service level improvement?”
He said there’s nothing wrong with reorganization in the abstract, but there has to be some sense of the fitness of things.
“On the other hand, I think the federal government—maybe they’ve gone too long without looking at the structure, but in state government it’s been ridiculous. You know, most cities don’t—even though it changes [their] mayors and councils—or most county boards don’t do anything like this that’s happening at the state level.”
He added, “It’s got to stop. Normally, the best way to do this is to have some sort of independent group sit down [and] do the evaluation. We don’t even know by what criteria the decisions were made for this structuring.”
Worse, he said of the state’s previous reshuffling, “I don’t think that there’s ever been any validation that it does any savings, at all.”