Why does it often seem like our government is only so-so? Simple, SOSO.
When we talk about government waste, the picture that often comes to mind is one of offices that are overstaffed with workers who spend lots of tax dollars accomplishing very little. Let’s not rule out that possibility. But there is a more pervasive type of waste.
I’m talking about SOSO waste: same old methods, same old organizational structures, same old expenses. Same old, same old: SOSO. That is how we end up with so-so government.
This is not to disparage the creative abilities of our civil servants, only their motivation — and sometimes their latitude — to seek out innovative new ways of doing things. Stasis is in the nature of the bureaucracy, with its budgets rolled over from year to year and its work force largely held over from regime to regime. This is true the world over.
And it’s not unique to the public sector. Corporate chieftains and middle managers know all about turf wars, about spending every dime of this year’s budget to keep every dime in next year’s budget.
But there’s a key difference. Businesses face competitive pressures that break their lulls more frequently than do public bureaus. The market regularly wrings out the waste that comes with stasis.
That’s why you can always count on a panel of business experts to spot government’s lingering inefficiencies, as a group convened by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle just did.
From a state budget that is already $3 billion slimmer since the recession began, the panelists found a further $3 billion, at least, in savings for the next five years. Their report comes at a crucial time: Another $1.5 billion in cuts is needed for the 2011 budget, and 2012 stands to be even worse.
The panelists told Cagle there are ways to cut the budget by ending the same old, same old practices, minimizing the effects on the public.
The biggest item relates to employees’ health benefits. Companies like Whole Foods and Safeway have cut their employee health costs by providing financial incentives for state workers to live healthier lives: keeping their weight or cholesterol down, for instance.
An actuary tapped by the panelists projected immediate savings for Georgia from this and other measures could reach $100 million. The figure could rise to $300 million annually, or 10 percent of the state budget for health benefits.
The panelists also recommended expanding community health centers for indigent patients and adding a small co-pay for Medicaid recipients who visit emergency rooms, rather than primary care clinics, for nonemergencies.
Georgia makes less use of nonprofit clinics than its neighboring states do, yet these clinics still manage to save us $400 million a year. A small investment in the clinics might double that savings, says panelist Kelly McCutchen of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The figure could be even higher if the clinics serve more poor patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes.
More ways to stop SOSO, and fast: Expand the use of shared back-office services like payroll and accounting among agencies and schools (saving some $30 million a year); allow agencies to sign leases longer than one year, giving them the flexibility to negotiate lower rents ($20 million); make wider use of virtual education, so that students can study physics or calculus without their schools having to hire teachers for those subjects (at least $4.5 million).
Also: Have teachers put another 1 percent of their salaries toward their pensions ($39 million) and reduce the use of furloughs or layoffs.
Not all these changes will be easy. But doing the easy and SOSO has brought us the so-so.