Controversy has been brewing for several weeks in one of North Carolina’s largest bureaucratic agencies, the Department of Health and Human Services.
The agency, which has 17,000 employees and a budget of over $18 billion, impacts a significant number of North Carolinians, from “prenatal programs, child development programs” to “rest home regulations.”
In recent news, the issue of hiring and paying of staff members has created a whirlwind of intense media coverage. Two 24-year-old staffers were hired for positions making $85,000 or more, leading some to question the hiring process and the credentials of the new staffers.
An employee who worked for only one month as the chief of staff to Secretary Aldona Wos received a $37,000 settlement following his departure. In another, $310,000 was paid over 10-months to a top advisor working on contract.
In responding to the criticism, Secretary Wos has contended that department’s operations were “broken” upon her arrival eight months ago, with no real sense of leadership or administrative capability.
In media interviews, the secretary has been resolute in saying that responsibility and accountability were critical in new hires within the department, and “getting the job done” was a priority for her administration.
But for some positions, the lack of a job description raises important concerns and issues in the public sector, especially in concern of transparency within a government agency.
Secretary Wos responded by saying “I think the word transparency can get pretty dangerous. … If transparency means that we’re in a planning process and you’re asking us, ‘Tell us all the things you’re planning,’ well, my goodness, allow us to work, and then we’ll give you everything that you want.”
By taking a private sector mentality into the public sector, Wos conveys the sense that government should operate in line with the principles of a private business.
For many, the belief that the public sector can be administered just as the private sector is to only focus on the concept of “management.” Yes, public management and private management share numerous characteristics.
Developing strategy, organizing and staffing personnel, establishing performance systems, dealing with internal and external organizations are hallmark principles of management, no matter the setting.
But within the public sector, administrators face unique differences that create a constraining environment for operating and managing.
In a classic work in the study of public administration, scholar Graham Allison noted that public employees work within a shorter time horizon, that political appointees serve for shorter tenures, that financial measurements for the private sector (a.k.a, the ‘bottom line’) aren’t conducive within the public sector, that equity drives public sector work rather than competitive performance, and that public scrutiny and political process create the need for transparency that private activities need not respond to.
Along with the fact that executive branch employees may have to respond to legislative and judicial impacts, along with the spotlight of media and press inquiries, public sector activities must respond to both internal and external pressures from different groups, be it clients and/or supervisors in a variety of areas.
These are critical differences that public administrators must adhere to in keeping the public’s trust, which is the ultimate kind of responsibility and accountability.
In 2008, then-candidate Pat McCrory went after his opponent with an ad stating “let’s not recycle the current culture of corruption and mismanagement.”
The true power of transparency is the only solvent to cultures of corruption and mismanagement. Without transparency, the trust one seeks in government operations cannot endure.