Category Archives: Efficiency in government

Fix the Structurally Broken Virginia Government

by James C. Sherlock

Great Seal of Virginia

When offered a choice of reasons for failures of large scale government actions, your first choice should always be incompetence, not bad intentions.

Big government requires competent legislatures, competent management and  control of executive departments, apolitical oversight by attorneys general and objective studies of its failures if it has any hope of being efficient and effective.

Absolutely no one after seeing the Virginia government reaction to COVID would accuse it of any of that. We need to fix it.

Unintended consequences of legislation

Readers just had an extended discussion over my column on the unintended consequences of minimum wage hikes.

It should be not too much to ask that Virginia politicians demand a full study of the effects of legislation, including minimum wage legislation, that is guaranteed to have far-reaching effects on the state. But they do not do it in the case of minimum wage hikes.

A structural problem in the General Assembly Continue reading

Virginia’s Mass Vaccination Effort and Health Facilities Inspections — Troubling Evidence

by James C. Sherlock

M. Norman Oliver M.D., Virginia Health Commissioner

Updated Jan 19 at 2:55 PM

If you’ve been wondering why Virginia has fumbled its rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, consider this: The Virginia Department of Health. As of one week ago, the Virginia Department of Health had not yet developed a vaccination plan.

From a presentation, “Virginia Department of Health Budget,” to Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee by State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver on Jan. 12, 2021:

COVID-19 Mass Vaccination Effort

VDH is leading a Vaccine Unit that has been formed under the Public Health Surveillance and Guidance Workgroup of the Commonwealth’s unified command structure. The Vaccine Unit is currently developing a COVID-19 vaccination plan for the Commonwealth. Additionally, a Vaccine Advisory Workgroup will be formed to provide perspective from varying points of view on actions and policies developed by VDH as it relates to COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

FY21 – $30,184,899 (General Fund)
FY22 – $59,123,029 (General Fund)

So VDH was “currently developing a COVID 19 vaccination plan” and had not yet formed a vaccine advisory group on January 12, 2021. The citizens of Virginia have known since March of last year that the state would need a vaccination plan. Continue reading

Let’s Get Our Money’s Worth from Those 2,000 Contact Tracers

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Department of Health has hired 2,000 COVID-19 contact tracers and investigators since May, but the virus has spread so rapidly that public health officials are conducting triage: focusing scarce resources on household members of people diagnosed within the past six days, people living in prisons and nursing homes, and individuals whose co-morbidities make them especially vulnerable to the disease.

State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said in a statement that the change will allow Virginia to deploy resources where they will have the most impact, reports the Virginia Mercury.

“This means that the local health department may not be contacting everyone with COVID-19 infection or close contact to someone with COVID-19 infection,” Oliver wrote. “Instead, VDH urges people to take proactive responsibility to isolate at home if they are infected and to identify and notify their close contacts.”

I have always been skeptical that, except in special circumstances, contact tracing would prove of much assistance fighting a virus that spreads as easily and stealthily as COVID-19. By the time people are notified that they have been exposed, they likely already have the disease and have passed it on to others. Making the task even more difficult here in America, as opposed to countries with conformist cultures, many people refuse to cooperate. In New Jersey, reports CBSN Philly, an astonishing 74% of those contacted declined to answer question. Continue reading

Governor Northam, You’ve Got the Money for Eviction Relief — Do Something!

by James A. Bacon

Virginia is in the midst of a housing eviction crisis arising from the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. Here in Virginia, governments have responded through three major initiatives: The federal government distributed one-time $1,200 stimulus checks to American households and funded a $600-per-week supplement to state unemployment benefits through July 31. And Governor Ralph Northam has allocated $62 million to help families facing evictions.

With all that public assistance, how it is possible that tens of thousands of Virginia families are on the brink of being thrown out of their houses? Nearly 2,000 eviction judgments were rendered in Richmond, Henrico, and Chesterfield counties alone in September and October, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

One answer is that the people who need the money aren’t getting it. The federal government managed to blast out its stimulus checks, but Virginia’s unemployment insurance agency has been overwhelmed by the spike in unemployment and can’t keep up. As Don Rippert pointed out a week ago, 70,000 Virginians had yet to receive their unemployment checks. Now we find out that the Northam administration has dispensed only $33.6 million of the $62 million set aside specifically for eviction relief. Continue reading

Northam Administration Information Technology Failures Continue

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

Help! WJLA is reporting that the State of Virginia is using a 35-year-old computer system to process unemployment checks. The system has buckled, leaving 70,000 Virginians without their unemployment benefits.  In a stunning admission, Bill Walker, Director of Unemployment Insurance with the Virginia Employment Commission says, “We are right at the first of July now” when asked how far behind the process stands.

It seems obvious that ineffective processing of unemployment claims disproportionately impacts less affluent and minority Virginians. Yet this issue has been missing from the Ralph Northam COVID-19 updates I have watched.  Those press conferences have included discussions of the presidential election and a description of court cases involving Confederate statues but nothing about the real pain that the ineptitude of the Northam Administration is visiting on 70,000 Virginians, including many people of color. Continue reading

Virginia’s Government – a Critique

by James C. Sherlock

At the age of 75 with a life of experience in and with government, I will offer here my assessment of the current structural problems in our state government that make that government significantly less efficient and effective than it should be.  

You will note that these comments generally do not point fingers at either party, but rather at the sum of their efforts or lack of same. 

I grew up the son of a federal worker. Most of the men in our Falls Church neighborhood were WW II veterans and after the war most of them were civilian employees of the federal government. I spent nearly 30 years in the Navy and ten more as a government contractor. I dealt with Congress a lot.

In retirement, I took up causes for improving my state. I have spent a lot of time over 15 years dealing with the General Assembly, the Governor and the state administration.

So those are the bases for my perspectives. You will note that my experience dealing with the federal government informs my critique of the government of Virginia. Continue reading

Incompetent, Dangerously Incompetent, and the Virginia Department of Health

Clark Mercer

By James C. Sherlock

It is very hard to recommend a career in politics these days. Elected officials are at the mercy of the competence of bureaucracies they did not create and over which, under civil service protections, they have little control.

Yet never have we needed dedicated, smart and effective political leaders more than today.

Clark Mercer, Governor Northam’s Chief of Staff, and I don’t vote the same way, but that doesn’t color my view of him. He is very smart and, if you see him on the Governor’s press conferences, he is a breath of fresh air, regularly elevating the discourse like no other person on the stage. He has a bright future.

I have been documenting the failures of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) in these pages and on the editorial pages of Virginia newspapers for more than a decade. I offer the title of this essay as a useful way to describe the hierarchy of incompetence in Virginia.

Well, VDH just reached up and bit Mr. Mercer.
Continue reading

Our Gutsy Governor

By Peter Galuszka

On June 24, 2015, Nikki Haley, a Republican who was South Carolina’s first non-white governor, called for the removal of a Confederate flag that had been flying over the state’s capitol grounds for years.

“This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” she said. Her action came a few days after an avowed white supremacist walked into an African-American church and opened fire, killing church members attending a service.

I was watching the news on TV when she made her gutsy move. I was deeply impressed.

And now, Ralph Northam, a Democrat who is governor of Virginia, has taken a similarly gutsy move. He has ordered that the state-owned statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee be removed from its stand on Monument Avenue in Richmond. It has been there for about 130 years, erected by white supremacists with deep sentiment for their romantic myths of Southern history.

“I believe in a Virginia that learns lessons from our past and we all know that our country needs that example right now,” Northam said. Continue reading

“The Dog Ate My Homework” Does Not Work for VEC

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Virginia Employment Commission has been inundated with unemployment insurance claims. Virginians seeking to file claims have been frustrated at not being able to get through to the agency with their questions and by delays in receiving payments.

All of this was the subject of a meeting and presentation to a Senate Committee on Tuesday as reported by the Daily Press. As has been speculated by Steve Haner in his comments on this blog, the Unemployment Trust Fund is in the hole. According to a presentation by the VEC to the Senate Committee, the trust fund balance has gone from $1.5 billion at the beginning of FY 2020 to a projected -$500 million.

None of that is too surprising. What did intrigue me, however, was an excuse often made by agencies — antiquated technology. A VEC spokeswoman explained that it was put into place in 1985.  As far as the VEC is concerned, that excuse will not suffice.

The 2004 Appropriation Act provided VEC almost $21 million to “upgrade obsolete information technology systems.” Two years later, the 2006 Appropriation Act included language authorizing VEC to utilize $51 million in federal funds “to upgrade obsolete information technology systems.” That identical language was included in every Appropriation Act since then. In a 2020 budget decision package submitted to the Department of Planning and Budget, VEC said that the upgrade “is scheduled to be completed prior to the end of fiscal year ending June 30, 2021” and offered to return $3.2 million of the appropriation.

There may be good reasons why it has taken VEC more than 15 years to upgrade its information technology systems. At the very least, VEC owes the General Assembly an explanation. Going further, JLARC should investigate this delay. Unemployed Virginians deserve better than a shrug and the modern version of “the dog ate my homework.”

What, Exactly, Is VDEM Doing In the COVID-19 Emergency?

by Carol J. Bova

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) is responsible for writing the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan (COVEP) which “provides the framework for how the state will support impacted local governments, individuals and businesses.”

A Virginia Municipal League (VML) web page provides Virginia localities a Continuity of Operation Plan (COOP) template from VDEM. The page refers to Va Code Sec. 44-146.18 B.6. which encourages but doesn’t require localities to have a COOP.

This Continuity Plan is a recovery plan and functions as a companion plan to the [Locality’s] Disaster Recovery Plan and the Emergency Operations Plan. The Continuity Plan provides a framework designed to minimize potential impact to operations and allow for rapid recovery from an event, which may or may not cause the activation of emergency response or incident action plans.

“While the Code [of Virginia] refers to VDEM as providing guidance to localities,” writes VML, “the worksheet will have to suffice as that guidance for now – VDEM staff are currently working night-and-day on immediate emergency planning and response. Try instead to work with your local emergency coordinator or work together with a neighboring community if you need to develop your own COOP.”

VDEM staff is working night and day? Administrators are too busy to help local governments figure out how to maintain operations during the COVID-19 emergency? What, then, is VDEM doing? Continue reading

It’s a Crisis! Let’s Scam the Government!

Image credit: Daily Texan

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

In a post yesterday, Jim Sherlock cited a report by NPR that the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) is in the process of finalizing contracts with private labs to expand COVID-19 testing. I hope that Jeff Stern, director of the agency, is not being pushed to conclude these contracts too hurriedly.

The last time that happened, with the state facing an oncoming Hurricane Florence, Virginia entered into a no-bid contract for $31 million to set up three emergency shelters. When the hurricane turned and largely missed the state, those shelters ended up being used by about 50 people. To be fair to Dr. Stern, his agency had warned the Governor and the General Assembly the previous year that the state had inadequate emergency sheltering provisions in the case of a major hurricane. On the other hand, a post-hurricane review contended that less expensive options had been available to meet the meets of an evacuation of Hampton Roads. Continue reading

WTJU Podcast: COVID-19 and the Economy

By Peter Galuszka

Here’s is the twice-monthly podcast produced by WTJU, the official radio station of the University of Virginia. With me on this podcast  are Nathan Moore, the station general manager, and Sarah Vogelsong, who covers, labor, energy and environmental issues across the state for the Virginia Mercury, a fairly new and highly regarded non-profit news outlet. Our topic is how Virginia is handling the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Look at Richmond and COVID-19

By Peter Galuszka

Here is a roundup story I wrote for Style Weekly that was published today that explains the effects of COVID-19 on the Richmond area. Hopefully, BR readers will find it of interest.

It was a tough piece to report. The impacts of the deadly virus are very complicated and multi-faceted. An especially hard part was trying to keep with the fast-changing news, notably the number of new cases and deaths. We were updating right up until the story closed Monday afternoon. It was hard to talk to people with social-distancing and closings.

The experience shows the delicate balancing act between taking tough measures to stem the contagion and keeping the economy going. My view is that tough measures are needed because without them, it will all be much worse, particularly more illness and death as the experience in Italy has shown.

Incredibly, our utterly incompetent president, Donald Trump, now wants to focus on the economy more than taking necessary containment steps. It’s far too soon for that. Regrettably, a number of Bacon’s Rebellion commenters are sounding the same irresponsible tune in keeping with their big business and anti-regulation laud of free market capitalism. Continue reading

In Failure, the GOP Has an Opportunity to Reinvent Itself

Todd Gilbert, House Majority Leader and soon-to-be House Minority Leader: GOP must learn to appeal to suburban voters.

by James A. Bacon

So, the Republicans have wrapped up their annual “Advance” — a retreat at the Omni Homestead resort in Bath County. And if reports of the two newspapers that covered the event are to be believed — one from the Washington Post and one from the Roanoke Times — GOP leaders have absolutely no clue how to become competitive statewide.

Attendees do agree that they got shellacked in the November election, and they share a vague sense that they need to increase their appeal in the suburbs. But their only hope at this point resides in the conviction that Democrats will over-reach with Trump Derangement Syndrome in Washington and enact California-style legislation in Richmond. If voters get buyer’s remorse, they might start voting for Republicans again.

But you can’t defeat something with nothing, and there is no indication in either news account that Republicans gave much thought to what they stood for, other than not being insane. Continue reading

Bad News at Richmond’s City Hall

Selena Cuffee-Glenn

Back in 2015, the City of Richmond was a managerial mess. Accusations flew of incompetence, conflicts of interest and revolving chair style management. One big problem was the deeply flawed installation of a financial computer system crucial to keeping the municipality functioning.

Then-Mayor Dwight Jones’s solution was to hire a ringer, Selena Cuffee-Glenn, who had earned a reputation for efficiency and competence as Suffolk’s city manager. She had a pair of degrees from the University of Virginia and a personable manner. When Levar Stoney succeeded Jones as mayor in 2017, he kept Cuffee-Glenn as the city’s chief administrative officer.

Then, reports circulated that relatives of Cuffee-Glenn seemed to be getting prize positions. Her daughter got a job at the city’s human resources department. A niece didn’t even have to formally apply for her $70,000 a year position.

An Inspector General’s report showed that as many as six Cuffee-Glenn relatives were working in some city capacity. On Sept. 18, Stoney fired her.

She says that her hiring policies did not violate any rules. She says she had no role in helping relatives get jobs. Her husband, for example, works for the city Sheriff’s Department, which she does not oversee. On the other hand, one relative got a Public Utilities job at a higher than average hourly rate. Continue reading