Public Assets Institute > Policy Areas > Vermont Budget > Challenges for Change: Keep the process open

Challenges for Change: Keep the process open

Challenges for Change—the new government efficiency plan passed by the Legislature just before the Town Meeting Day recess—is getting off to a bad start. The Education Design Team, which has a little more than two weeks to come up with plans for pretty sweeping changes affecting how schools are run, held its first meeting on Monday behind closed doors. With good reason, school board members and others with a stake in education are suspicious about the motives for shutting out the public.

Challenges for Change started as a legislative initiative to find $30 million in efficiency savings in the state’s General Fund budget. A Minnesota consulting firm produced a study in December suggesting ways to save $38 million while maintaining or improving the quality of the services delivered. The main areas identified for potential savings included:

  • Education
  • Human services
  • Corrections
  • Contracting with private service providers
  • Environmental regulation
  • Economic development
  • Bureaucratic rules

The consultants’ recommendations were turned into a bill that was introduced on Feb. 5, 2010. Within 20 days, it passed the Senate and House and was signed into law. Now committees comprising private citizens and state employees, like the Education Design Team that met on Monday, have until Mar. 25 to come up with plans for implementing the consultants’ recommendations. These implementation plans will include, among other things, proposed changes to state laws and other regulations that are deemed to be barriers to efficiency.

The Dover School Board was the first to formally protest the decision to exclude the public from the design team meetings. As word gets out that other committees are holding secret meetings, the complaints are bound to grow louder.

In human services, for example, the Challenges for Change bill gives the secretary of administration the authority to cut up to $46 million in services. In spite of this seemingly big reduction spending, however, the General Fund will go down only $16 million. That’s because Vermont forfeits federal matching funds—in this case about $30 million—when it cuts certain programs. With Medicaid, for example, the state gets more than $2 in federal funds for every $1 it spends. So for every $1 the state tries to “save,” Vermonters will lose $3 in services, which they either will pay for out of their own pockets or do without.

One of the promises of the Challenges for Change bill is that the spending cuts will “give our citizens better results with less money.” How the Human Services Design Team proposes to cut $46 million and produce better results is a discussion that surely would interest lots of Vermonters—those who receive the services as well as those who are paid to deliver them.

Tom Evslin, the person overseeing these Challenges for Change committees and evidently the one who directed that the meetings be closed, told WCAX and other news organizations that excluding the public would allow for a free exchange of ideas.

“The reason is so people can explore ideas without worrying about sounding stupid,” Evslin told the Brattleboro Reformer.

But saying something stupid isn’t the risk in these meetings. The purpose of Vermont’s open meeting law—and the benefit of government transparency regardless of legal requirements—is to keep public officials from doing something stupid. There’s no guarantee, but if they tell the public what they’re planning to do before they do it, they have a better chance of avoiding a misstep and gaining public support.

City councils in both Montpelier and Burlington heard howls of protest when residents found out they had been kept in the dark about certain financial dealings. Secrecy in government only breeds distrust. The reforms and reorganization necessary to institute Challenges for Change will be hard enough under any circumstances. Not letting the public in on the planning needlessly restricts opportunities for new thinking and galvanizes opposition from the start.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on March 10, 2010 at 4:43 pm

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