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Monday, August 4, 2014

Change would benefit efficiency in NH government

Telegraph Editorial

New Hampshire’s Executive Council has a chance on Tuesday to cut government waste, improve efficiency, strengthen transparency and make it easier for local firms to do business with the state. But it isn’t a big state contract that we’ll be voting on to do all this. Sometimes, the best change you can make is when you change yourself: it’s time to raise the threshold at which items come before the Executive Council.

Presently, the five of us on the Executive Council vote on essentially all state contracts of $10,000 or more and all personnel contracts of more than $2,500 (as well as key appointments by the governor and other matters). Last year, this added up to 1,431 contracts ranging from $2,500 to hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. I’ve spent most of my career in the private sector, and the idea that a multi-billion dollar organization would essentially require its board of directors to approve a $12,000 roof repair is, frankly, somewhat shocking to my business-minded colleagues outside government. But the truth is, government is not a business – we carry the public trust, and have higher standards of transparency and accountability. So it’s worth looking at it through the lens of what’s best for the public. And, through that lens, the answer is clear. ...

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New Hampshire’s Executive Council has a chance on Tuesday to cut government waste, improve efficiency, strengthen transparency and make it easier for local firms to do business with the state. But it isn’t a big state contract that we’ll be voting on to do all this. Sometimes, the best change you can make is when you change yourself: it’s time to raise the threshold at which items come before the Executive Council.

Presently, the five of us on the Executive Council vote on essentially all state contracts of $10,000 or more and all personnel contracts of more than $2,500 (as well as key appointments by the governor and other matters). Last year, this added up to 1,431 contracts ranging from $2,500 to hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. I’ve spent most of my career in the private sector, and the idea that a multi-billion dollar organization would essentially require its board of directors to approve a $12,000 roof repair is, frankly, somewhat shocking to my business-minded colleagues outside government. But the truth is, government is not a business – we carry the public trust, and have higher standards of transparency and accountability. So it’s worth looking at it through the lens of what’s best for the public. And, through that lens, the answer is clear.

The extensive council review process for the hundreds of smaller contracts every year is costing New Hampshire taxpayers tremendously – both in terms of bureaucratic waste and in obscuring transparency.

Leading the effort to raise the threshold all year has been our longest-serving councilor, Deb Pignatelli. I also spoke with three previous councilors before making up my mind – two Republican, one Democrat – who together represented my district for more than 32 years. Unprompted, all thought the threshold should be raised. Here’s why:

n Improve efficiency and cut waste: Today, a typical contract of less than $25,000 consumes roughly 40-85 hours of personnel time and costs the state nearly $3,000 (as estimated by the Division of Purchase & Property Management). There are hundreds of contracts of this size (last year, 374 to be precise). Quite literally, we have dozens of state employees who spend hundreds or thousands of hours a year on paperwork on these contracts. It’s not uncommon for an agency to receive an electronic document from a vendor, print it out, and ship it to another agency – which in turn makes a dozen or more paper copies for processing, then scans one into a new electronic document.

To be sure, any organization as large as the state will have some bureaucracy, and the council is also discussing other much-needed reforms – like a project to bring more of the contracting process online, spearheaded by Councilor Christopher Sununu, and a new consent calendar spearheaded by Councilor Christopher Pappas and myself. But raising the limit is a concrete and immediately-impactful step we can take now. We have a responsibility to taxpayers to be frugal with their tax dollars and tens of thousands of hours on paperwork is hardly frugal.

n Strengthen transparency and accountability: Currently, contracts of less than $25,000 make up 26 percent of all contracts the council reviews – but they make up roughly 0.2 percent of all funding we oversee. And, by the way, 100 percent of these contracts have passed in recent years. Effectively, these small contracts are the “hay” in the proverbial haystack – lots of paper standing between citizens and the vastly more impactful “needles” – that is, the multimillion dollar contracts that often don’t raise a single question from a single councilor before passing. There’s no question that it is important for the public to see transactions big and small – which is why the state should publish quarterly reports listing even these smaller contracts, for councilors and the public to review. But the best way to ensure both transparency and accountability is to ensure that the council’s review process focuses on projects that have a big impact on the state – and too often, the smaller contracts are essentially shielding them from the full review they deserve.

The Executive Council has been meeting for 334 years, and it took until 2014 for a majority of councilors to abandon the 10,000-page council packets we received each meeting in exchange for laptops and ipads. But New Hampshire is moving forward. Our Court system has made great strides to electronic records this year, and Gov. Maggie Hassan has ordered all state business forms to be available online within the year. I look forward to the chance to vote Tuesday to raise the council contract threshold in order to achieve better efficiency and more impactful transparency for New Hampshire citizens.

Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern lives in Concord and represents 49 cities and towns spanning from Keene to Rochester.