Louis S. Bezich

is vice president of administrative services at Camden County College and principal investigator for the Camden County Transformation Initiative

Unlike many local governments in the United States trying to weather the recession with short-term fixes, Camden County has embarked on a long-term project aimed at permanent structural change.

Camden County's "Transformation Initiative" began in February, through a partnership between the county freeholders and Camden County College. The college is examining ways to consolidate or enhance the delivery of services by 18 freeholder-managed offices and autonomous agencies under county government. These agencies, from sewage treatment to higher education, require similar support services, such as insurance, human resource management, information technology, janitorial services, trash collection, and procurement. These common needs represent an opportunity for change.

Why so many independent systems for common functions? Camden County, like many local governments, is a product of 200 years of changing public policies, resulting in a system that decentralizes day-to-day management into segregated governing and operating silos. The result is an unfortunate level of redundancy regarding "back-office" operations that warrants a fresh look in these economically challenging times.

The potential for savings is considerable. For example, conservative estimates of the combined annual spending of the agencies in question include: $5 million on property and casualty insurance; $10 million to $13 million on janitorial services, building maintenance, landscaping, and fleet management; and $6.3 million on legal services. Therefore, saving even 5 percent in just these areas - the minimum we think is possible - would be significant. In addition, millions of dollars in similar and sometimes identical goods and services are purchased annually - all independently.

Finally, human resource experts advise that 4 percent of payroll typically is lost each year in unscheduled time off and absenteeism abuse. At a combined county payroll of $250 million among the agencies, any reduction in this area that could be generated through uniform policies and consolidated training has tremendous potential for savings.

The initiative has also embarked on a number of modest pilot projects intended to demonstrate potential, build trust, and counter the inevitable resistance to change. Two such projects are the consolidation of payroll processing and the reorganization of courier routes, and both have achieved their desired ends.

Surprisingly, in an examination of how 12 cities are dealing with the downturn, the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded that most are not making fundamental organizational changes. None of the 12 cities showed any examination of government or demonstrated efforts to change. Most have relied on a variety of wage freezes, furloughs, workforce reductions, tax increases, and service reductions, which may provide some short-term relief, but will not achieve sustained benefits to the taxpayers.

Donald Klepper-Smith, chief economist and director of research for DataCore, recently stated that "we have yet to see the public sector adapt in the way the private sector has. Many in local government have yet to appreciate the structural nature of this recession."

The short-term thinking of local government reflects a mind-set that things will go back to the way they were before the recession. Camden County disagrees. Rethinking service delivery can go a long way in demonstrating government's ability to change and address today's economic realities.

E-mail Louis S. Bezich at lbezich@camdencc.edu.