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Dockery: State lessons in accountability and transparency

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Published:   |   Updated: July 11, 2014 at 08:49 AM

Gov. Rick Scott created the Department of Economic Opportunity to symbolize his focus on job creation, attracting new industry and reducing unemployment.

Scott trusted Jesse Panuccio, his general counsel, to take over as executive director.

One of Panuccio’s responsibilities is to oversee the contract of Enterprise Florida, the public-private partnership dedicated to job creation. Enterprise Florida relies on hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to offer incentives to businesses to move to or expand in Florida.

Unfortunately, taxpayers are slow to see many details of the deals because of the nature of the negotiations and what Enterprise Florida refers to as “trade secrets.” They’re also in the dark about whether the deals measure up to expectations years after the splashy VIP ribbon cuttings. So we have to rely on Panuccio to safeguard our investments.

It’s important that we have someone in that role who believes in transparency and accountability.

Panuccio has other important responsibilities. While the nation was focused on the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Florida was in the midst of its own mess. The state launched a $63 million website fraught with problems that prevented thousands of Floridians from collecting their unemployment benefits.

Although it’s understandable that any major change of this magnitude would have glitches, the time it took to remedy the problems was not.

Even more disturbing was the initial claim of success, which led to downplaying the scope of the problems, followed by a shroud of secrecy and culminating in finger pointing at the vendor that developed the CONNECT system.

This “it’s not my fault” mentality flies in the face of the accountability this administration says it believes in. If we continue to privatize services and IT systems, it’s incumbent on the agency that enters into the contract to assume responsibility for its success or failure.

That starts with good decision making. In this case, that was strike one. Deloitte Consulting, the company selected, was in litigation with another state for a similar project failure.

The next step in effective accountability is proper oversight. Strike two! That should be followed by extensive testing of the system prior to launch. Strike three!

Of course, after a problem occurs, it’s important to acknowledge it, communicate with those affected and fix it in a timely manner. Strike one, two and three again!

It took more than six months to fix, the U.S. Department of Labor had to step in, and the Department of Economic Opportunity incurred considerable costs to hire extra employees, pay overtime and employ another consultant to advise on CONNECT.

The governor failed to demand the same accountability with Panuccio that he does with those further down the food chain — such as our hard-working and under-appreciated teachers.

This debacle was playing havoc with the lives of tens of thousands of Floridians, many of whom were being evicted from their homes, having their power turned off, and unable to buy the basic necessities like food and medicine. Yet the governor waved off media inquiries and stuck by Panuccio.

But the governor was not the only one who punted on accountability. The Florida Senate had not yet confirmed Panuccio, and senators angered by the volume of frustrated constituent calls promised to ask the tough questions. They didn’t. Despite the fact that he continued to show no contrition, he was confirmed. Several senators enthusiastically sang his praises.

So what’s happening now at the Department of Economic Opportunity?

The administration ignored a longtime employee’s concerns about cases where the agency had improperly reported overpayments to Floridians who were receiving unemployment benefits. The employee was later fired, and a jury concluded that it was in retaliation for raising questions. She was awarded $250,000 and continues to express concerns about the agency’s procedures.

It’s estimated that as many as 19,000 Floridians might have been negatively affected by the department’s actions. It’s unconscionable that the state would so cavalierly risk the credit of so many of its residents, causing them grief and unnecessary harassment.

Although Florida is one of the stingiest in providing benefits, it’s one of the most aggressive in clawing back money paid in benefits to the unemployed. One has to wonder if this administration is as aggressive in seeking clawbacks from corporations that received “economic incentives” when the promised outcomes don’t come to fruition. Or when the companies declare bankruptcy.

There are lessons to be learned here. Accountability is not intended for those in the upper echelon of this administration; transparency does not pertain to the Department of Economic Opportunity, and Florida citizens should consider incorporating if they want to be treated with respect.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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