Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Great Leap Forward, and Other Examples of Bureaucratic Stupidity

"Strike the Drum of the Great Leap Forward Ever Louder"

Having worked in bureaucracy for about 13 years now, as I have watched decisions come down from the top that were based on unrealistic expectations, divorced from the realities on the ground, I have often thought back on a documentary I once saw about Communist China’s Great Leap Forward. To make a long story short, Mao wanted to make China’s economy as powerful and as productive as the American economy, so he simply decreed that it would be so. He realized that to produce more manufactured goods, he need more factory workers manufacturing goods, and to get those workers he would need to take them from working on the farms. But he knew he would still need to feed those workers, so first off he decreed that food production would be doubled. The order came down the chain of command, and all the lower level bureaucrats were told that they had better make it so. Of course the means to achieve this goal were not provided, and in fact, the means were being reduced because labor was being redirected away from agriculture into manufacturing.

"The People's Communes are good"

This documentary showed a rally were a series of Commune leaders pledged how much more they would produce than they had the previous year. One would come forward and say “Commune number such and such will produce twice as many bushels of rice as last year.” Then the leader of another Commune would come forward, and pledge to do four times as much. All of this was greeted with loud applause, however, not much thought was given to how this was going to be done.

When the harvest came, all the bureaucrats sent up reports that made it appear as if they had in fact met their goals… but they hadn’t. But operating under the assumption that they had produced all this food, they could now concentrate more on building up their industrial/manufacturing capacity. So it was decreed that each city and village would produce x amount of manufactured goods, and so local officials around China made sure that it was so. All over china, little iron smelting furnaces appeared. To meet production quotas, quality iron goods were often melted down and made into worthless low quality metal that broke into pieces when it was used.

"Everybody is fully occupied in production, the Trade Sector is also fully occupied for everybody"

While all this was going on, the reality of food production started to catch up with those who had bought into the lies, and soon there was starvation all over China.

Likewise, in my time with what used to be known as the Texas Department of Human Services (now part of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission), I have seen on a smaller scale similar acts of bureaucratic insanity. For example, several years ago the idea was pushed that if we stopped doing one on one interviews with out clientele, and started doing group interviews of 30 to 50 cases at one time, we would save all sorts of time, and have more time to devote to other aspects of our business. There were problems of course. All of our offices were laid out with one on one interviews in mind, but since another region had done this successfully, and claimed that it saved them time, it was decreed that we too would follow this model. Supervisors, who were sold on the idea, believed that they could schedule twice the number of people in a week. And in fact, many people were interviewed very quickly, but after about a month I began to notice an increase of calls from people who were complaining because their case had not been processed. This continued to increase, and it became apparent that we were interviewing people faster than we were able to complete the cases. In fact, fewer cases were being processed than before, and gradually we were getting behind. Fortunately, the office that I worked at at the time had a manager who had sense enough to go back to the old system as soon as this became apparent, even though the orders were still that we should be doing it the new way. Our office went up to the edge of the cliff, and slowly back off. However, there was another office nearby that did not have such a manager. By the time something was done about it, the office literally had to be closed. Several months of cases were now backlogged, and it fell on other offices to clean up the mess that was left over the next several months.

Sometime after all of this, I remember hearing that a time study was done, and it was determined that even when done by people who were comfortable with doing group interviews, the amount of time that they actually saved was statistically insignificant. It just seemed like they were saving time because they rushed a bunch of people in and out of their offices at one time, and had more quiet time to do the follow up work on those cases.

Unfortunately, the new approach to doing our work that is being pushed through in Texas is likewise based on unproven premises that are not connected with reality. They believe that they will be able to do the same work with 57% less staff, thanks to the use of call centers and a new computer program that still isn’t working properly and takes longer to actually use than the old program. There is every indication that they are charging ahead with this plan, despite what we see unfolding in Colorado. In the aforementioned minor implosion, there were reserves that did not implode that were able to pick up the pieces. In the proposed model, if it implodes, there will be no unaffected parts of the agency.

Here is what's in just today's news about the ongoing mess in Colorado:

1. Nearly 1,000 Emergency Welfare Cases Still Unresolved:

"Nearly 1,000 calls for urgent state welfare or Medicaid benefits following problems with the state's new computer system remain unresolved according to a report issued by the state Monday. The computer system, the subject of a lawsuit filed in Denver court, has been blamed for causing a backlog of nearly 30,000 people waiting to find out if they can receive benefits.... The $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System went online Sept. 1 even though county workers had complained of glitches. The Colorado Center on Law Policy sued the state after the system was blamed for delaying payments to thousands of residents receiving benefits and keeping cases from being processed."

2. Online welfare system still needs helping hand:

"Six months after Colorado's brand-new welfare benefits system went online, county workers and benefit recipients are still throwing up their hands in disgust. The system has been fraught with errors since its birthday, Sept. 1, 2004. Part of the problem, county officials and Weld County residents said, is that the state didn't test the system first. Denver District Judge John Coughlin set a Monday deadline for the state to slash the thousands of new cases that have backlogged since the Colorado Benefits Management System went live. Counties were ordered to complete applications for 40 percent of that backlog, nearly 30,000 cases statewide. Monday afternoon, Weld officials were confident they met the judge's requirement. But they were less confident the system will be fixed anytime soon.... They thought kinks would be ironed out with training and a better understanding of the computer program. But the longer the system is in use, the clearer it becomes that most problems are the system's fault, Griego said. For one thing, the system doesn't share information properly among various welfare programs, which was the primary reason for its creation....

Debbie Allmer, who lives in La Salle and has custody of her two young grandchildren, said she doesn't want excuses. She applied for food stamps in August and qualified, but it took until mid-December before she received any benefit. When Allmer asked for back food stamps to cover the previous months, she was told she'd receive $12 for each month. Then, a month later, she got a letter in the mail saying her benefit would drop to $2. "I don't care if your computer is screwed up," she said. "We'd kind of like to eat." Finally, the social services department solved the problem and now Allmer receives $170 a month in food stamps. Allmer isn't alone. The system is using up reams of paper to notify people who receive benefits. Often, recipients get the same notice multiple times, or the notices are incorrect...."

3). Counties fear big bill: Food stamp woes could leave them liable for millions:

"Colorado counties are so nervous they'll be billed for millions of dollars in food stamp overpayments that they've asked attorneys and social services directors to look at their options. "We've been extremely worried about the mounting costs of overpayments," said Larry Kallenberger, executive director of Colorado Counties Inc. "We have a growing lack of confidence that the state is going to find ways to hold us harmless." The overpayments began after the start last fall of the Colorado Benefits Management System, the state's troubled new computer that determines eligibility for welfare benefits. As food stamp applications were delayed and renewals bogged down, the state Department of Human Services announced that no families would be booted from the program while their cases were in limbo. That provided a safety net, but it also keeps people on food stamps whose circumstances might have improved. Every month, some 3 percent to 5 percent of people on food stamps become no longer eligible. At roughly $290 a month per family, and with some 100,000 households getting food stamps every month, county officials are worried that the overpayments can reach into the millions of dollars statewide....

4. Number in county needing help jumps:

"...While the number of county residents in need grows, a new system meant to ease the workload for human-services employees and streamline the benefits process instead has hindered the system. Six months ago the state brought online a new computer system to improve the benefits system aiding employees who assist clients. However, La Plata County's human services employees have been overwhelmed, Pat Carlson, La Plata County's director of human services, said during the county commissioners' meeting on Monday. "We have one case worker handling most of the cases," Carlson said. "It is clear we don't have enough staff." Temporary employees were hired to help with the conversion to the new Colorado Benefits Management System that was initiated in September, Carlson said.... Before the Colorado Benefits Management System was initiated, processing a new food stamps case took 20 minutes. Now it takes more than an hour to complete. Carlson is considering asking the county commissioners to allow her to hire additional employees. "We feel like we are fighting an uphill battle," Carlson said...."

See also Off the Kuff's comments on this.