Wasting Time, Space and Money: Business as Usual at Human ServicesBy Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 1997; Page A22
Washington's Department of Human Services occupies enough real estate to bring a smile to the lips of Donald Trump.
A visitor intent on a tour could start in the department's headquarters in sprawling St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington and eventually walk through myriad clinics, juvenile and nursing homes and food stamp offices that speak to the vast span of direct services provided by the agency.
But the tour wouldn't stop there. Over the last two decades, officials have sprinkled Human Services workers in 130 office buildings across Washington. And about half the leases demand rent that now is above market rate.
"Many are sites which perform purely administrative functions relating to the social services provided by the District," city auditors noted in a comprehensive report in 1996. "And many are leased from private parties."
Few agencies in Washington have suffered more from decades of poor management, political interference, budget cuts, flawed contracting and lack of training than the Department of Human Services.
Analysts and agency officials point to a laundry list of problems.
Agency officials waited two years before they transferred federal grant money into city bank accounts last fall, a delay that cost the city $2.1 million in lost interest payments. In 1996, officials failed to reconcile food stamp purchases and vendor accounts and charged the expense of 20 contracts to the next fiscal year. The agency has not audited federal grants for the last two years, as required by law.
Finally, hiring, promotions and layoffs at the agency are enmeshed in politics.
Two-thirds of last year's layoffs at Human Services hit front-line workers while managers went unscathed, even though the agency has "an excessive number of supervisors and managers," according to a study by the D.C. financial control board, which was created by Congress to oversee the city's finances.
Department officials promised to cut 200 more positions by March 31. But they missed their deadline by three months -- at a cost of $400,000 to the agency -- because mayoral officials wanted to protect politically connected employees, mayoral aides say.
On occasion, agency officials can't even find their employees. Human Services supervisors recently told city auditors that 39 employees were assigned to one office, but payroll records showed that 51 staffers were being paid for working at the site.
Human Services also has failed to cross-train employees, a chronic problem throughout city government. When many employees call in sick in some offices, work either comes to a halt or the department pays overtime to its skilled employees, at an annual cost of $2 million to $3 million.
Untrained clerks supervise large contracts. A senior Human Services official explained: "The promotion from clerk to contracting officer is a rite of passage. No one considers ability."
Politics also play a role in hiring and promotions at the agency. Several longtime friends of Mayor Marion Barry, including Rufus Mayfield, whose service with Barry dates to their street activist days in the 1960s, hold well-paid managerial positions at the agency. And in mid-April, Barry appointed his former press spokesman, Johnny Allem, as deputy commissioner for mental health, one of the most troubled divisions at Human Services.
Allem is viewed by many reporters as a knowledgeable spokesman. He is president of an organization of recovering alcoholics and has advised a national union. But he has no professional experience in mental health.
Human Services Acting Director Wayne Casey suggested that a reporter talk to the mayor about Allem's appointment. Allem offered his own defense.
"The problem with health care from the beginning is that doctors ran it," Allem said. "They needed people like me in there from the beginning."
A federal judge since has announced that he would appoint a receiver to run the mental health division.
At the same time, Barry has filled 10 senior positions in Human Services with temporary appointees, including Casey. In a letter to the control board, Barry noted that "many potential managers find the current environment . . . unappealing and unsupportive."
The effect of all these problems on people who must seek help from Human Services is predictable, noted John W. Hill Jr., executive director of the control board.
"On the most basic level," Hill said, "the agency cannot ensure the poor people are getting services."
Casey does not dispute most of this. He said he has repeatedly sought the power to fire incompetent employees and process contracts, rather than waiting for approval. And he has strived, he said, not to place political appointees in jobs that require great expertise.
"I need the authority to get around the archaic personnel and contract system," Casey said. "Hold me accountable for managing, but if you won't let me manage, don't hold me accountable."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company