For years it seems I’ve written about the shadow government which as time goes by is exercising more and more power in our governing process. I’m speaking, of course, of government by consultancy.
The consultant sector is one of the fastest growing industries in America. While consultants have been around forever, their influence on the governing process, especially at the local government level, has increased significantly in the past decade. Here in Mendocino County that growth trend has climbed ever upward even though the ranks of upper-level bureaucracy keep getting expanded. Recent Grand Jury reports and independent management audits of departmental operations all attest to that fact. So why is local government so dependent an reliant on consultants.? With all the high-priced bureaucrats, departmental heads and assistant directors in harness, one would think these folks must know what they’re doing. Evidently not. Every time you turn around you’re liable to bump into a consultant who’s been brought on board to perform some essential task, conduct a study, create a plan, facilitate a meeting, give advice on mission statements, and a thousand other things.
In my judgment, as a conservative estimate 80 percent of all consultant agreements executed by county officials are a complete waste of taxpayer money. And money is the name of the consultant’s game. The consultancy sector is one of the arrival destinations once government officials exit through the revolving door. Consultants remember that Supervisor Joe Smith, or Department Head Sally Jones hired their services to facilitate team-building in the Auditor’s Department. Once Joe and Sally leave government service they’ve got a soft nest to fall into.
At last Tuesday’s Supes’ meeting (June 15), Dr. David Colfax donned his professorial robes and delivered a real-time lecture on how the governing process is skewed by consultants who are aided and abetted by public servants.
The occasion of Prof. Colfax’s discourse on the consultancy menace was a typical 35-minute presentation by Public Health staffers attempting to give a progress report on a five-year “Population Health Initiative,” funded by grants from the California Wellness Foundation. The Foundation ponied up $20 million for, among other things, to do a study in nine counties, including Mendocino, to, as DPH Director Carol Mordhorst explained, “educate state legislators” on various health matters vital to California citizens. To that end, nationally-known pollster Louis Harris was retained to survey county residents.
Once DMH staffers completed their computer-generated slide show, which was accompanied by non-stop, jargon-larded dialogue (“collaboration”, “cooperation”, “consensus-building”, “mentoring”, etc.), Colfax brought the self-congratulatory “presentation” to an abrupt, unexpected end.
Colfax, a former university professor with a doctorate in statistics, told the DPH crowd, “For 40 years I’ve been involved in data collection and evaluation. I’m a member of the American Institute of Public Opinion Research. I’ve written a manual on research methodology. I’ve looked at the methodology (in the DPH report). If that were a doctoral dissertation as methodology, I’d send it back with a note: ‘Write, re-write, and re-write again.’”
Colfax then asked the bureaucrats, “Has Louis Harris given you what you paid for?”
Dr. Colfax received nothing more than apprehensive looks from the “presenters” of the Harris study.
Pushing on, Colfax said, “Are you misrepresenting, inadvertently perhaps, because you have a particular agenda? Or, are you misrepresenting what Louis Harris gave you?”
At that point, DPH staff began to collectively shuffle their feet and gaze down at their shoes.
“It’s not a methodology,” Colfax informed them about their survey which randomly contacted by phone 500 county residents, and queried them with a hundred or so questions.
“It’s a cover,” is how the 5th District Supe characterized the ersatz survey. “You don’t have the response rates. You don’t tell us how the sampling trend was established, and so forth.”
Colfax then got to the nitty-gritty.
“I’m not going to sit here and bore everyone silly, but when I see data collected as part of, and again, I know this is embarrassing and awkward — I don’t like doing this — but when a study such as this is made part of a centerpiece where you’re talking about what’s been accomplished, I wonder, in fact, if we are not doing ourselves more damage than good, assuming we share the same general objectives.”
He then patiently explained to the slack-jawed “helpers” from DPH that the poll they commissioned was done by a company in the business of churning out surveys which make the firm money. To say Colfax questioned the reliability of the data is an understatement.
Looking directly at the now very unhappy DPHers at the podium, Colfax said, “The people who presented this apparently are not the kind of people who can present this kind of data. Don’t presume that professional polling agencies do this out of the goodness of their hearts. I want to make it clear to you, that I will not support policies based on what I regard as half-baked, profit-driven surveys.”
Dr. Dave next pointed out flaws, errors and questionable data in the Harris survey.
On a question dealing with the level of medical care received by the 500 respondents, Colfax stated, “Eighty-four percent of the people in this population — God knows what this population is because Lou Harris and Associates don’t specify and the methodology doesn’t give it — have total health care. Do you believe that 84 percent of this county’s citizens have total health care. I don’t.”
A query regarding the income status of Mendolanders, Colfax commented, “Do you believe that 52 percent of the people interviewed have incomes of over $25,000 a year? There’s all kinds of questions you can ask about this response in a county where the average income is somewhere around $21,000. I don’t know if you’re talking about household income or what. I simply don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Colfax tackled the actual pool of respondents or the “sampling” used in the survey.
“Of the people who were interviewed, 58 percent of the people had some college or more. I have to say, well, sure. Then I see that a telephone survey has been used. Are you aware that we have towns here in northern California where only 25 percent of the people have their telephone numbers listed? I think for the most part they’re people who happen to be at home, who are retired, who are over-educated, and didn’t have much else to do but to talk on the phone because they don’t have much of a life, and they were very agreeable (with the pollsters).”
Addressing another technical aspect of polling, Colfax said, “I need to know what the completion rate is. It’s not found anywhere. My point is, without hectoring or haranguing, but quite frankly I’d love to sit down with Lou Harris (who Colfax knows) for an hour and say, ‘Let’s knock off the crap!’ Because it’s happened over and over and over again in Mendocino County with non-profits and governmental agencies. Somehow or another we get hooked into consultants who know that some of our people don’t know as much as they do, so they hoodwink them. I’m almost afraid to ask how much this study cost. In fact, I don’t even want to hear how much it cost because you’ll just tell me it’s not local tax dollars but state or some other money. The concern I have here is that we’ve got to do better in collecting data.”
At one juncture DPH Director Carol Mordhorst attempted to head Colfax off at the pass by inviting him to “assist us” in straightening out the confusing data. She told Colfax the Lou Harris had provided them with “three large, loose-leaf notebooks, full of data.” Colfax easily parried the attempt to co-opt him by telling Mordhorst, “No, I won’t do that. That’s not my job. It’s not my job to educate staff or to clean up their mess — that’s the job of staff. My job is to stop it (the mess) right here.”
Mordhorst exclaimed she was “shocked” to hear all the less than nice things said about Lou Harris and Associates. “Most communities would be happy with this data,” Mordhorst claimed.
“We’ve been delivered a junk car and are paying for a Lexus,” Colfax responded.
Hitting the bull’s eye, Colfax zeroed in on policy-making.
“We’ve got to bring the same critical standards to bear when we collect data and make policy decisions. We’re supposed to be making policy decisions based on some of the data collected here.
“But the trouble is, we only increase the cynical notion that ‘you can do anything you want with statistics;’ therefore, statistics aren’t worth a damn.’ And, in this case, I’m saying the statistics aren’t worth a damn.
“But there are statistics that could be collected, and, I bet, for the amount of money we spent, a good study could have been done by an honest polling agency who are not out to make big bucks by getting the opportunity to do a survey across-the-board.”
Colfax then drew a line in the sand: “As long as we use bad data to make policy, we’re going to be making bad policy. I think it’s time to simply say, stop.”
Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.” Colfax’s updated version as we head for the 21st Century carries the same message of integrity: “The crap stops here.”
Colfax’s comments, in their entirety, should be sent to every elected official in the country. He’s right on the money.