Field visits? The Legislature didn’t buy any field visits.

The State Auditor looked at how DWR oversees bond funds, given that the public has voted them billions of dollars to disperse and there’s still talk of an $11B bond being put on the ballot next year. The audit found that by and large, DWR does a decent job, especially in awarding grants and doing things like defining deliverables and requiring thorough invoicing. The State Auditor found fault with on-going monitoring of grants, citing a lack of field visits and groundchecking. The State Auditor also said that DWR and the Dept of Finance have been insufficiently transparent about Bond Funding, and asked why the software DWR just bought still can’t show the public how the money was spent.

I maybe shouldn’t write about this, because my normal policy is to only write about stuff I find on the internets already. This time, though, everything I’m going to say is based on work I’ve done in three grant programs. Based on years of my personal experience the State Auditor’s report gets it largely right. But it also misses the most crucial, most fundamental point, and given that all grant program managers only ever talk about the same thing, I’m shocked it didn’t come up in this report. In my experience, taxpayers of California got more and better oversight of DWR’s grants than they paid for through the bond measures.

The State Auditor doesn’t mention it in their report, but California bonds restrict administrative oversight to 5% of the money being granted. That is true within each grant and at DWR’s level as well. No doubt that is important to the legislature, to show that the bureaucracies aren’t growing fat off the money they’re supposed to hand out. But in every instance I’ve seen, 5% for administrative overhead isn’t enough. You get exactly what you’d expect from well-intentioned people being asked to do a job without enough resources, and exactly what the State Auditor found. They do a nice job up front while there are still funds to support staff. Then, two years into a three year grant cycle, the 5% admin overhead is spent, staff shifts to a different project and the sole remaining person can’t do ongoing oversight. In three out of the three programs I’ve worked for, the programs cannibalized their own funds to pay for oversight to finish out the grant round. They did that because they wanted to issue grants, which are the only way the department gets anything done. Programs subsidized the grant funding out of their own technical assistance monies or their other projects, because 5% isn’t enough to do good oversight for the length of the grant measure.

Honestly, I’m surprised the State Auditor didn’t mention this in their audit. For all I know, they have whole reports dedicated to the issue, so they don’t write the same thing in every audit. But they wrote banal recommendations about “strengthening oversight” without mentioning the fact that bond measures don’t give the Department enough money to pay for staff for the length of the grants.

The other thing the audit mentions is that the grant process isn’t transparent enough, with not enough public information about how grant money is spent. I can speak to that too, since I was supposed to enter that data into the databases that the public could search. I didn’t. I didn’t because the interface was fucking awful. I spent hours trying, but virtually everything was wrong with the interface. It was slow to load, offered incomplete choices, constrained my answers, wouldn’t let me go back to fix them. I remember writing to the person who maintained it, asking him to send me the database itself, so I could put our projects straight into that. He couldn’t let me do that. I asked if I could send it in Excel so that he could import it directly. No. Nothing worked, so I gave up. Sorry, public. But it was too awful. I’ll write you confessional blog posts instead.

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