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Can State Government Run Lean?

Harriet Jones


Some Connecticut state agencies have a horrible reputation among the businesses that use them. The way they implement regulation is seen as onerous, confusing and above all, expensive. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports on an effort to change that.

If you cast your mind back to the 2010 gubernatorial election, you’ll remember that state agencies and the conduct of state government took a kicking in the debates.

“We have a DoT and DEP where it can take up to 24 months to get a permit to expand a plant. This doesn’t make any sense. Other states do a much better job. When I’m governor, I will fix these things.”

That was Tom Foley, the Republican candidate for governor. In fact of course it’s his Democratic rival who’s now getting the chance to fix those things.

“Dan Malloy said to me as he offered me this job, you know we’re in a budget crunch – we’re not going to have more resources.”

Dan Esty is Malloy’s Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, DEEP.

“So we’re going to have to figure out how to get the same things done and done better, with a world that’s going to shrink in terms of budgets and shrink in terms of people.”

To do more with less, and improve his department’s reputation in the business community, DEEP is implementing a technique known as Lean.

“The essence of Lean is to take apart a system, like a permitting program, and to understand the elements that go into getting the job done. And then to recognize that some of those elements will be value-added and need to be kept, but some of them will be valueless and need to be stripped out.”

Lean was pioneered in the manufacturing world – it’s a way of life for really big corporations like GE and United Technologies. It calls for constant change and improvements.

One floor up at DEEP’s Hartford headquarters, in a room lined with home-made flow charts and sticky notes, Brian Thompson is learning the language of Lean.

“So in looking at these categories, we’ve tried – not tried, we have – identified not problems, but opportunities…..”

Thompson is the director of the Office of Long Island Sound Programs and his team is the latest of more than 40 to undergo lean training – approximately 300 of the department’s employees so far. Tonia Selmeski is a permitting and enforcement analyst. She works with businesses on the shoreline to issue permits for things like dredging, or managing docks and seawalls.

“It’s good to take a break from all of the emails, phone calls, the workload on your desk, and be able to have the opportunity to take a step back and look from the outside in.”

The permitting process she’s been helping to analyze this week was put in place in 1990 and hasn’t been updated since.

“When you’re in it every day you don’t see some of the monotony of things, and maybe the duplicativeness of some of the process or the waste in the system.”

One of the biggest time wasters, according to the department is permit applications that are filled out incorrectly. A fix for that is an online form, similar to Turbo Tax, that guides applicants from step to step, ensuring they include all the relevant information. But to put in place a system that’s efficient enough to accept payments and signatures electronically, DEEP, like all of state government, needs to drastically update its IT systems. Dan Esty.

“This is a category where there was underinvestment not just for a couple of years, but for a couple of decades.”

He says it will take tens of millions of dollars to put that right. If the department can automate some of its more mundane work, he believes it can put the focus on enforcement where it’s really needed.

“It will allow us to do a better job of processing routine permits, and in doing so we will free up time to deal with the very risky situations or the regulated parties that have bad track records and the ones that really need extra scrutiny.”

DEEP says it’s seeing results. In testimony given to the General Assembly in February, Esty said in the last quarter of 2011, his department had processed 90 percent of applications received in 60 days or less. Governor Dannel Malloy says he believes Connecticut misses out on economic development because businesses are actually afraid of state agencies and the waste of time and resources they represent. He visited with the DEEP teams training on Lean this week to get a sense of how they’re meeting the challenge.

“This is exactly what I’m looking for – a government that gets to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a timely fashion and actually does a lot of work with the customers on customer satisfaction.”

The ultimate verdict of course will rest with those customers, the businesses and taxpayers of Connecticut.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones. 

Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.

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