IT’S BEEN A YEAR AND A HALF — WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE SEC REPORT?
A little history:
In February 2011, the State Auditor came out with her report on CCMS. She concluded that the giant project was running six years behind schedule and $1.5 billion over budget, and that the fault lay largely with AOC mismanagement. The bloat, the overreaching, and the incompetence of the AOC —topics which once held little interest outside our branch — were now making headlines. That same month, Assembly Bill 1208 was introduced; it would have stripped away much of the Judicial Council’s budgetary authority and returned it to the local courts.
In the face of the brewing public relations storm, the Chief Justice created the Strategic Evaluation Committee (SEC) in March 2011 to study the workings of the AOC and write a report. The Chief Justice herself selected the committee’s members. And thus meaningful reform of the AOC was delayed for over a year while the SEC went about its work.
The SEC report finally came out in May 2012. To the surprise of the skeptics, it was terrific. It weighed in at 300 pages and contained 148 recommendations. It was thorough, it was thoughtful, it was beautifully written, and it was scathing. The committee called the AOC “dysfunctional” and “top-heavy.” The committee found that the organization had “lost its focus on one of its primary roles and core functions, which is providing service to the trial courts.” It called for a “fundamental overhaul of the agency’s organizational structure.” It concluded that the AOC needed to be “right-sized.”
But the Chief Justice, despite having commissioned the report herself and having hand-picked the committee that authored it, didn’t immediately embrace it. She downplayed its significance, calling it a “snapshot in time” that was already outdated at the time of its release. Rather than adopt the SEC report on the spot, the Judicial Council referred it to the Executive and Planning (E&P) Committee, which in turn ordered further study — a study of the study. The E&P Committee invited comments, and it made the comments — and the identity of the commenters — public. In other words, the name of any judge who had anything bad to say about the AOC would be known to everybody, including the members of the Judicial Council. And thus meaningful reform was delayed for another couple of months.
If the E&P Committee was hoping that publicity would have a chilling effect, the strategy backfired badly. Well over 400 current and former bench officers chimed in from all over the state. The vast majority of them endorsed the report and blasted the AOC. In the words of one retired judge, “How much more of a failure can the AOC be?”
So finally, in August 2012, the Judicial Council “took ownership” of the report. We were told that the SEC report would be the Council’s “Bible.”
What have the Council and the AOC been doing with the report they “own”?
Whatever happened to the SEC recommendations?
Periodically, the AOC puts out a checklist to show how well it’s been fixing itself. Last October, the AOC claimed it had “completed” or “closed” 98 items off the list of 152 directives (including sub-directives). (See http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/jc-20131025-info1.pdf.)
But if you take a hard look at the latest AOC update on SEC compliance (which you can find at http://www.courts.ca.gov/19567.htm), you’ll find that what passes for “completion” in the AOC’s book isn’t really that.
• The AOC has dragged its feet by ordering more studies.
SEC Recommendation No. 7-26 is clear: “The number of managers and supervisors should be reduced.” The AOC was supposed to conduct a review of the AOC classification system “as soon as possible.” Several directives deal with bloat at the management level and with reducing the number of lawyers on staff. (See, e.g., Directive No. 14, ordering a review to “identify and correct misallocated positions, particularly in managerial classes.”)
The AOC gives the following account of its progress:
“The Administrative Director will report to council following the completion of the Classification and Compensation Study. The study is tentatively scheduled to be complete by November 2014 with a report to the council in early 2015. [Emphasis added.]”
That’s the AOC response to 22 of the 150 directives.
So there’s going to be another study, this one lasting a year. The Council approved a contract to conduct that study just this September — over a year after the Council “took ownership” of the SEC report — and no action will be taken on this new study until 2015.
We in the trial courts wish we could have bought some time with a time-sucking study before we had to slash salaries and benefits, bump dozens of clerks back down the career ladder, and lay off thousands of talented and dedicated employees
But the Classification and Compensation Study isn’t the only study. There’s going to be an Essential Services Review, in two phases, to determine the AOC’s core functions and essential activities. In other words, the AOC still needs to figure out what it’s for. That review won’t be ready until deep into 2014. (See Response to Directive No. 44.) For its part, RUPRO — the Rules and Procedures Committee of the Judicial Council — has not one but two advisory groups on the issue of early input into the rule-making process.
Perhaps both advisory groups will light upon the same simple solution we propose: A straightforward open-meeting rule for all Judicial Council committees.
• The AOC still hasn’t reformed the way it budgets its projects.
The SEC report put it bluntly: “The AOC must improve its fiscal decision making processes.” (Recommendation No. 7-27.) A bunch of the E&P directives involve developing processes to assess how much projects are really going to cost. (See, e.g., Directive No. 9 on developing accurate cost estimates, deemed “completed.”) The AOC's stock answer to about a dozen directives involving finances includes this paragraph:
“The new ‘Guidelines for the Administration of Branchwide Projects and Initiatives’ have been reviewed and approved by the Administrative Director of the Courts and will be implemented as the official AOC process in the coming weeks. These guidelines will be presented to the Judicial Council at its December 2013 meeting.”
In other words, it’s taken over a year to come up with some guidelines. We hope we’ll get an explanation of what took so long and a meaningful chance to comment.
• The AOC hasn’t opened up its rule-making process.
Directive No. 6 requires the AOC to “develop a process to better assess the fiscal and operational impacts of proposed rules on the courts, including seeking earlier input from the courts before proposed rules are submitted for formal review. The AOC should establish a process to survey judges and court executive officers about the fiscal and operational impacts of rules that are adopted. [Emphasis added.]”
The recent blink-and-you-missed-it comment period on the open-meeting draft rule hardly comports with this particular directive.
• The AOC has largely disregarded the SEC’s recommended staffing cutbacks.
At the time of the SEC investigation, nobody seemed to know how many people actually worked for the AOC. According to the SEC, “The AOC has understated the true number of people working at the organization levels, if one includes all temporary and contract staff.” Somewhere along the line, the AOC finally admitted to having 1100 employees, but only after several requests for public information were submitted by Alliance Director Judge Kevin McCormick. The SEC recommended that the AOC’s total staff size, which included 880 authorized positions, should be reduced to somewhere between 680 and 780. E&P translated that recommendation into a directive that gave no specific target figure, and now the AOC has deemed the directive completed.
The AOC claims that it has reduced its staff from over 1100 — including temps and contractors — to somewhere over 800 as of last month. Those reductions, however, came largely from cutting back on contractors and temps. Other employees qualified for the Voluntary Separation Incentive Program (VSIP) — in other words, they got a payout. In fiscal year 2011-2012, the AOC actually laid off 36 people. In fiscal year 2012-2013, the AOC laid off exactly two people. (See http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/jc-rec-45.pdf.)
How many people did your court lay off in the same time frame?
• The AOC admits it can’t audit itself.
Directive No. 43 requires the AOC to perform internal audits. The AOC, however, says that it can’t until 2014: “Given the staffing limitations of the IAS [Internal Audit Staff] and the other pending projects and activities, the Chief of Staff is again requesting an extension for addressing this directive. IAS is currently in the process of addressing current staffing needs and does not anticipate being able to work on this directive until the beginning of January 2014. As such, it is requested that the timeline for this directive be extended to April 2014 to allow the Chief of Staff and IAS Senior Manager time to devote to this important directive.”
• The Council hasn’t done a performance review of the AOC’s boss.
The SEC report didn’t come up with the idea that the AOC review the work of its employees annually. The AOC’s own written personnel manual requires annual performance reviews. The SEC just asked the AOC to follow its own manual. (Recommendation No. 6-3.)
And it still hasn’t. The Administrative Director himself hasn’t had an annual performance review, despite the SEC report’s specific recommendation that the Judicial Council “conduct periodic reviews of the performance of the Administrative Director.” (Recommendation No. 4-4.) It was supposed to happen in October. So far as we know, it hasn’t happened yet.
This SEC recommendation simply restates the first rule of management: Accountability begins at the top.
• The Chief Justice won’t cut civics education.
The SEC recommended that the AOC consider eliminating support for civics education. The Chief Justice, however, specifically directed the AOC to continue to staff her civics education program for 2013 and beyond. The civics education program’s full-time staffer costs the state $121,000 a year in salary and benefits. (See http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/JC-Directives-68-20130426.pdf.)
• Even the telecommuting issue hasn’t been resolved yet.
Remember the AOC staffer who was telecommuting from Switzerland? You’d think the whole telecommuting issue would have a simple fix. But no: “The HRSO [Human Resources Service Office] requests an extension from October 2013 to December 2013 for providing the Executive and Planning Committee with a report on the six-month progress of the pilot telecommuting program.” (Response to Directive No. 26.) In the meantime, despite the pleas of Judge Wachob and Alliance Director Judge Maryanne Gilliard, the Council voted unanimously for a liberal telecommuting pilot program. (See http://www.courthousenews.com/2013/02/26/55213.htm.)
We look forward to reading the Administrative Director’s report when it finally comes out. Next March.
Bottom line: Not much has changed.
After years of promises, studies, comments, and comments on comments, the AOC remains largely what it was back in 2011: overstaffed, impenetrable, and utterly resistant to reform. The AOC still has a staff of over 800, many of whom recently got raises. At a time when trial courts are passing out pink slips, the AOC is still hiring (see, for example, the listings for senior HR analyst, which pays up to $91,296, and real estate portfolio systems manager, a job that tops out at $152,930). While the administrative director may be new, all his chief lieutenants were high-ranking officials during the previous failed administration. The titles may be different, but the faces are all the same.
That is, if the faces appear at all. The day-to-day manager of the operation is supposed to be Chief Operations Officer Curt Childs. A number of credible AOC staffers have pointed out that Mr. Childs is often not to be found at the mother ship at 455 Golden Gate. The Alliance will be seeking public records to discover his absenteeism rate.
The AOC won’t change until the Legislature makes it change — with a top-to-bottom audit, and with meaningful oversight from a democratically elected Judicial Council. This isn’t a call for legislative interference in the affairs of a co-equal branch. This is a request that the Legislature do what it’s supposed to do — keep a close eye on the taxpayer’s money. This is a call for judges to take back our branch, with the Legislature’s help, from the unelected bureaucrats who have run it into the ground.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges