State employees forced to produce hundreds of reports that nobody reads

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What if you spent days or weeks preparing a special report that no one ever read? That’s exactly what critics are saying about the ever-increasing burden piled on Michigan’s civil servants by lawmakers in Lansing.

Perhaps it’s time they say, to cut back on the reports, and post all the raw data online, making it far more useful to citizens and providing a level of transparency that would promote lawmaker accountability.

According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, state employees were required by to churn out over 800 reports this year for lawmakers on how budgeted money is spent. That total is up 29 percent since 2001 even though the number of employees able to produce the reports is down by 11,000. The job will only get tougher when an additional 2,400 workers take early retirement on Dec 31.

The so-called standard “boilerplate” in budget bills is responsible for so many reports having to be generated.  This year, budget bills required 485 types of reports, some of which were to be produced semi-annually or quarterly, totally over 800. Beside the budget-required reports, hundreds or even thousand more reports are put out by non-budgetary agencies or as a matter of long-term practice.

While some of the reports are clearly necessary, many border on fringe information that only a few lawmaker might read. Some of the reports produced regularly include, “staff time/activity regarding development of ergonomic standards” to “prisoners receiving off-site medical care that would have received care within the correctional facility if beds had been available” to “the number of homes weatherized through the preceding quarter.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Dan Scripps, question the number of reports required and claim that some are produced by virtue of just one request, sometimes by lawmakers who have termed out and are no longer around. In many cases he says, “whether anyone reads them at all is an open question.”

The concept of fewer reports and more online information is favored by Gov.-elect Rick Snyder, and after taking office, he may push for changes already advanced by some lawmakers and critics of the existing system.  Instead of putting out the hundreds of staff-generated reports, the idea is that complete raw data would be more useful to politicians and state residents alike.

Should the state publish its accounting records, anyone would be able to produce reports on a wide range of matters. The full-disclosure approach would yield far more transparency and comprehensive information in government activities than what is available today.

A project called “Show Michigan the Money, managed by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, advocates putting more raw data on the Internet, and “produce fewer but much more useful and high quality reports.” The center’s director, Ken Braun, points to the high cost of producing the current reports.

Braun says that certain reports are useful, such as motor vehicle statistical reports and certain financial analyses requires by House and senate fiscal agencies. However, given the ease of which data can be analyzed by savvy citizens using programs like Microsoft Excel, providing the information online would allow many groups to tailor reports to their own needs.

One state that’s at the forefront of pushing out financial information for all its citizens to see is Missouri. It’s “Accountability Portal” on the Internet allows anyone to look up virtually all checks, salary and other useful information on the web.

With Michigan, the sticking point seems to be the cost of moving data to the Internet so that it’s accessible by all. Some say the cost could be as high as $100 million to $150 million, although a spokesperson for Snyder says that seems “somewhat off base.”

A large portion of the costs would be to overhaul the state’s accounting system which was implemented in 1994, based on 1980s technology and effectively predating the Internet. The only way to get all the financial information online would be to completely replace the existing accounting system with a new one.

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