People deserve a bureaucratic rethink

The Critic Who Counts

While California may not be as broke as you think, at least in terms of dollars and cents, the same probably can’t be said for social capital.

After news emerged last July that the California Department of Parks and Recreation had hidden an approximately $20 million surplus from state officials, apparently in order to protect the funds from prying budget analysts, many were left to wonder just how much money other state agencies were hiding from the budget-slashing glare of the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The answer came in late January, when it was revealed that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hid more than $3.5 million in secret funds accumulated since 2005 that should have gone to the state general fund. In addition, a state auditor report released last Thursday uncovered news that the the parks scandal took place over the course of not just a few fiscal cycles as suspected, but for as long as 20 years.

After the report’s release, what was once thought to be only an isolated scandal within the parks department suddenly exploded into a corrupt culture that dates back to 1993 on top of a second scandal at Cal Fire. For aghast citizen observers, the events draw into question California’s entire bureaucratic structure.

Since then, there’s been rampant speculation about the issue — how widespread is the problem of budget secrecy in California’s bureaucracy? How should the perpetrators of the parks and Cal Fire deceptions be held accountable? But there’s been little talk about addressing the actual root of the problem. The real question to ask is simply this: Why?

The Department of Finance announced it will conduct an audit of the Cal Fire incident similar to the audit of the parks department it conducted after that scandal was first revealed last July. And legislation was introduced in the State Senate in late January that would submit state employees who knowingly participated in the misrepresentation of financial figures to potential criminal and civil action.

But just reacting to these scandals as isolated incidents isn’t enough. Neither of these courses of action look too likely to put much of a kibosh on future budget frauds, because both audits and criminalization view what happened at Parks and Rec and Cal Fire as a result of corruption, not structural fault. As long as bureaucrats think they can get away with shamelessly audacious shatterings of the public trust, and bureaucratic structure allows it, damage control will do little to solve the problem.

Perhaps California politicians and voters are just unsure how to react. After all, a situation in which the government hides money from itself sounds 1) unlikely, and 2) inconsequential. But the reality is that the scandals in the parks department and Cal Fire show a brazen disrespect for the people of California and their popularly elected officials, as well as a shockingly disjointed view of how democratic governments operate.

Bureaucrats at both departments treated the money allocated to them by the office of the governor as if it was theirs to do with as they pleased — theirs to defend at the bargaining table, hide away from the public view or risk losing to budget-slimming financial analysts — rather than a temporary gift from taxpayers with a specific purpose in mind.

The independent nature of the California bureaucracy — its culture of interagency and interdepartmental competition for funding — threaten the ability of the government to act as a popularly elected body. It’s impossible for the Legislature and governor’s office to direct and control policy if run-away bureaucrats, knowing that accountability from the legislative branch is usually a pipe dream, proceed to set their own agendas.

It’s time to rein in the bureaucracy. Sure, it’s a concept that’s been discussed on the state and national levels for years, mostly by merciless whack-a-mole conservatives like Texas Gov. Rick Perry (Uh, Departments of Commerce, Education and … uh … oops). But equating an agenda of increasing legislative oversight and constitutional control over the bureaucracy with decreasing the size of government puts the idea in a bad light. Reining in bureaucracy doesn’t need to mean less government, although it could — it only needs to mean more accountable government.

It’s time for California to wake up and realize that our bureaucracy is spinning out of control. Failing to act on the crimes committed in the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection sends a signal to bureaucratic administrators that it’s permissible to fudge the books and interpret policy mandates in their own way. It’s time for Brown and the Legislature to work together and create a simpler bureaucratic system that favors transparency over secrecy, cooperation over competition and effective popular governance over mindless and deceptive political jockeying.

As soon as California’s government gets just a little more responsive as a result, we’ll be thanking them for it.

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @connorgrubaugh.