Oregon Department of Agriculture: Improved management practices, use of resources could help Food Safety Program achieve its mission

Executive Summary


The Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) Food Safety Program is struggling with a backlog of establishments needing inspection. This backlog was caused by an increase in the number of licensed businesses and complexity of business practices, and an inspection staff busy with other duties. By implementing stronger management practices, making better use of data, and more strategically deploying its resources, the program can reduce its backlog of inspections, better achieve its mission of preventing the spread of foodborne illness, and prepare for more regulatory challenges in the near future.

Read the full report here.

The Food Safety Program has an inspection backlog

According to ODA, a backlogged firm is one that is three or more months late for an inspection. We found that, as of October 2016, 2,841 firms were late for an inspection.

Inspectors have not kept up with this workload in part because the number of licensed businesses has been steadily increasing for the last 10 years. There are now more than 12,000 licensees needing regular inspection by the Food Safety Program.

Inspectors are also spending significant amounts of time on duties that are not related to inspections, such as attending training courses in specialized license types or answering licensee questions on the phone. Management has established goals for how much time inspectors should be spending on inspection-related tasks, but it is not clear these goals are being met.

Federal grants, contracts take time away from inspections

Many firms in Oregon are subject to inspection not only by ODA, but also by the federal Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. The Food Safety Program has a contract with FDA to conduct some of these inspections in exchange for reimbursement. Currently, ODA conducts 500 contract inspections each year, one of the highest contract workloads in the country. These inspections take significantly longer than a routine ODA inspection.

ODA’s Food Safety Program was one of the first in the country to enroll in the federal Manufactured Food Regulatory Program Standards, or MFRPS. Through MFRPS, the program has developed policies and procedures related to enforcement actions, responding to food-related illness, and training. This work has taken time away from conducting food safety inspections and was one of the factors contributing to the backlog.

Staff turnover is a challenge

Since 2006, 28 inspectors have either left the agency or retired. Retiring inspectors often take decades of expertise and experience with them. Hiring and training new staff to replace them is time-intensive. And there is no formal succession plan to prepare for their departure.

Turnover has been especially challenging for the program’s two field operations managers, who are responsible for supervising inspectors. ODA has struggled to keep people in these two positions.

The program uses a tool from FDA that allows food safety regulatory programs to calculate the number of inspectors required to manage the workload. But we found the Food Safety Program was incorrectly using this tool and may not have an accurate estimate of its own staffing needs.

The program needs more management oversight

More oversight of food safety inspectors is needed to ensure the quality and consistency of inspections. Field operations managers only review the inspection reports of new inspectors while they are trained. Although field operations managers are expected to supervise inspectors in the field, this is not happening because managers are busy with office work.

Management could offer more guidance to help inspectors be more consistent in their interactions with licensees. Currently, inspectors are inconsistent in how they issue enforcement actions and how much time they spend explaining the rules and regulations to food establishments.

The program is also at risk of overlooking some businesses that are operating without a license. Currently, ODA relies on new businesses to contact them to obtain a license. But for businesses that may not, there is no formal policy or procedure to proactively identify them.

The program could benefit from better use of data

We found the Food Safety Program is missing several opportunities to use data to help make decisions.

Although management can access the program’s Be Food Safe database to see how many firms are overdue for an inspection, they have not been consistently tracking and storing these data. Keeping track of these numbers could be helpful in identifying patterns and strategies to reduce the backlog.

Some data are not being kept in the most efficient form for analysis. Inspectors fill out daily paper reports of how they spend their hours, but management does not analyze these. By keeping these data in a digital format that can be easily accessed, and regularly analyzing them, management could identify how staff spend their time and look for opportunities for improvement.

We also found that the program could benefit from a designated data analysis position. Managers say they do not have time to collect and analyze data because of their other responsibilities. By having someone whose role is primarily data analysis, the program could benefit from this data without compromising these other duties.

Recommendations

To work toward the goal of reducing the backlog of inspections, we recommend ODA reconsider some of its workload, provide more guidance to inspectors, and better track and analyze data to inform these decisions. To help the program better achieve its mission, we recommend ODA develop policies and procedures to improve oversight of inspectors and develop partnerships with other agencies. And to address some of the staffing challenges, we recommend the program use data to analyze its staffing needs and develop a succession plan for retiring inspectors. Our specific recommendations can be found on page 22 of the report.

Agency Response

The full agency response can be found at the end of the report.

 

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Department of Geology and Mineral Industries: Actions taken to better manage federal funds, but further improvements needed

Executive Summary


The Department of Geology and Mineral Industries encountered challenges that contributed to serious financial reporting and cash flow issues. In 2016, new department management started to make improvements and has implemented some financial controls, but further improvement is needed.

Department is addressing lack of controls over federal grant processing

The majority of the department’s revenue is derived from Other Funds and Federal Funds, which are received through cooperative agreements and fee-for-services projects. In fiscal year 2015, the department recorded $4.7 million of federal revenues and expected about the same for fiscal year 2016.

From fiscal year 2014 through fiscal year 2015, the department experienced significant turnover in leadership and fiscal staff positions, resulting in a loss of institutional knowledge and experience and contributing to serious financial reporting and cash flow issues at the department.

Further, a lack of adequate controls contributed to the department using inappropriate grant management practices including 1) drawing down federal monies prior to incurring expenditures; 2) inaccurately reporting federal expenditures in the Schedule of Expenditures of Federal Awards; 3) untimely reporting indirect costs; and 4) inadequate supporting documentation.

In collaboration with a review team from the Department of Administrative Services, in 2016 new management began implementing a number of changes to strengthen controls over financial processes.

Management is also in the process of developing policies and procedures over financial processes. At the time of our audit, however, formal policies and procedures had not yet been adopted.

Recommendations

We recommend the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries continue to improve internal controls over financial processes, including the proper recording and reporting of federal program monies. Our specific recommendations can be found on Page 10 of this report.

Agency Response

The Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (department) concurs with the findings and recommendations of the audit report. The department will implement all recommendations as part of its ongoing efforts to improve financial and business practices. The department’s full response, including the implementation status of each recommendation, can be found at the end of this report.

Read full report here.

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Oregon Office of Economic Analysis Reblog: Oregon County Update, September 2016

 

Checking in on employment across Oregon’s counties reveals a number of encouraging trends. First, in recent years, job growth has returned to all regions of the state. Every region and every single county has seen some gains from the depths of the Great Recession. That said, the growth has not been evenly distributed of course. Painting with a broad brush shows that urban Oregon has outperformed rural Oregon, even as the latter is now up to 80 percent recovered overall.

Read more at: Oregon County Update, September 2016 — Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

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Department of Human Services: To Better Achieve its Mission, Vision, and Goals, DHS Must Increase Efforts to Address Employees’ Concerns

Executive Summary


The engagement level of employees can directly influence their ability to do their job and thrive professionally and personally. In April 2016, we conducted a survey of Department of Human Services (DHS) employees to help DHS management identify work environment factors positively or negatively affecting employee engagement.

Survey respondents generally reported they know the agency’s mission vision, and goals and are proud to work there. But their responses also highlighted areas within DHS that need improvement. These included tools and resources to accomplish the work, compensation, hiring practices, recognition, professional development, stress and workload distribution, and communication. Addressing these issues will help DHS improve employee engagement and better achieve the agency’s mission, vision and values.

Read the full report here.

Overview of DHS

The Department of Human Services’ (DHS) mission is to help Oregonians in their own communities achieve safety, well-being, and independence through services that protect, empower, respect choice, and preserve dignity. The agency’s biennial budget is about $10 billion with 7,897 full time equivalent staff.

The agency serves over a million Oregonians each year through two support services units and five program areas. The five programs provide services through numerous field and local offices throughout the state. Central Services, which includes the Director’s office, and Shared Services, provide support and leadership to the following programs: Aging and People with Disabilities, Child Welfare, Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities, Self-Sufficiency, and Vocational Rehabilitation.

Employee engagement is important

Engaged employees are passionate, energetic, and dedicated to their job and organization. One study indicates that a higher level of employee engagement correlates with higher rates of success in achieving strategic goals, higher employee retention, and fewer days of sick leave and lost time.

Work environment surveys can help an organization measure its level of employee engagement. DHS has been conducting an employee survey since 2012 that consists of seven questions designed to measure employee engagement.

Our survey was designed to measure the factors that influence employee engagement. DHS management could use the results of our survey to identify areas to improve, and set priorities for action.

Core knowledge and respectful work units given high ratings among respondents

Survey results indicate that DHS is doing well in four areas that influence engagement: mission, vision, goals; job suitability; respectful work units and reporting of harassing and discriminating behavior; and teamwork.

Nearly all respondents reported they knew the mission, vision, and goals of the agency; and how their work relates to these goals. Furthermore, over 85% of respondents reported they are proud to work at DHS. Almost all of the respondents reported they found their work to be meaningful.

Survey highlights concerns DHS management should address

DHS management should address perceived deficiencies that influence employee engagement. We surveyed 7,426 DHS employees and received 4,580 completed surveys, resulting in a 62% response rate. Employees rated their level of agreement with survey questions regarding factors that influence employee engagement. The response benchmarks we used were based on the existing DHS metrics, which are as follows: 85% and above means the respondent perceives DHS as doing well for that factor; between 66% – 84% means a factor that needs some improvement; and 65% and below means a factor that is in critical need of management attention.

Survey respondents identified seven factors in need of improvement – tools and resources, compensation, hiring practices, recognition, stress and workload, professional development, and communication.

Only 55% of respondents felt they had sufficient tools and resources to do their job. At least 50% of respondents across two units and five programs reported a high level of stress. Many respondents reported concerns about the fairness and competitiveness of hiring practices, and a lack of recognition for the work they do.

Another key factor related to employee engagement and organizational success is communication. For an agency as large as DHS, with offices all over the state, communication can be particularly challenging. However, according to a Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency’s work environment survey, direct and timely communication from senior leaders can go a long way in making employees feel informed and connected.

Leaders also need honest feedback from employees who provide services to clients, in order to help them make the best decisions. Overall, less than half of the respondents felt that communication and information flows effectively between the central office and the field offices.

Recommendations

To better achieve its mission, vision, and goals, we recommend DHS management develop and implement a plan to address the seven areas needing improvement: tools and resources, compensation, hiring practices, recognition, professional development, stress and workload, and communication.

To gauge whether efforts are improving engagement, we recommend DHS management administer a work environment survey at least annually that includes the factors we identified that influence engagement.

Last, we recommend management use the future survey results to revise the plan, as needed.

Agency Response

The agency generally agreed with our recommendations. The full agency response can be found at the end of the report.

Featured New Audit Release Noteworthy

Audits in the News: September

Audits in the News: A third-party audit, commissioned by the Audits Division, gets some attention.

We here in the audits division are proud that the work we do makes a difference. Our work attracts the attention of the legislature, statewide news sources, and even local media outlets. Local media coverage of our audits is just another way we communicate with the people of Oregon about the work that we’re doing on their behalf to make government better. This is part of an ongoing series of posts rounding up recent instances in which the Oregon Audits Division makes a cameo in the local news.

The Secretary of State and the Oregon Audits Division commissioned a third-party audit of Oregon’s Business Energy Tax Credit, known as BETC. The credit, administered by the Department of Energy, had been the subject of a number of news articles in the past few months.

Earlier this month, the results of that investigation were released, also to some media coverage. You can read the Secretary’s letter, explaining the purpose for the audit and its findings, here.

Also be sure to read the full report here.

The Oregonian – Audit finds ‘suspicious behavior’ in dozens of energy projects that got Oregon tax credits

Read the story here.

“More than a quarter of the large business energy tax credits issued by the Oregon Department of Energy over eight years ‘seemed improper, violated statutes or rules, or exhibited suspicious activity,’ a first-ever independent audit of the controversial program found.”

Statesman Journal – Audit finds problems with some Oregon energy tax credits

Read the story here.

“An independent investigation of Oregon’s Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) program found ‘concerning’ risk factors in more than one-third of the $1 billion in credits issued since 2007.

The Portland Tribune –Audit: ‘Suspicious behavior’ on energy credits forwarded to DOJ

Read the story here.

“Finding no direct evidence of fraud, Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins nevertheless has forwarded ‘circumstantial evidence of suspicious behavior’ in 79 projects that received business energy tax credits to the Oregon Department of Justice.”

Oregon Public Broadcasting –Audit: Shuttered Oregon Tax Credit Program Issued Money for Suspicious Projects

Read the story here.

“More than a third of the credits issued under a tax credit program for renewable energy companies in Oregon went to problematic projects.

That’s according to an independent analysis issued Thursday by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office.

The report was prepared by a Portland-based consulting firm that specializes in financial crimes. It was paid for by the Secretary of State’s office.”

Audits in the News Featured New Audit Release

Oregon Department of Education: Clearer Communication, Consistent Use of Results and an Ongoing Commitment to Improvement Could Help Address Testing Concerns

Executive Summary


Our audit responds to House Bill 2713 (2015), developed with input from the State Auditor. It called for a Secretary of State audit to review the impacts of the statewide summative assessment on Oregon’s public schools, and make recommendations for improvement.

Through a series of surveys, site visits and interviews, we learned many schools faced challenges in the first year of administering the new Smarter Balanced test, including adjusting to the demands on staff and school resources. Some reported fewer challenges in the second year.

Some educators are concerned that certain student populations may experience more negative impacts than others. Some also told us that a more comprehensive assessment system would be useful.

Read full report here.

Oregon introduced Smarter Balanced in 2015

The Smarter Balanced assessment is a new test introduced by the Oregon Department of Education to all public schools in the spring of 2015. Smarter Balanced tests 3rd – 8th graders and 11th graders in math and English language arts near the end of the school year. The test assesses students’ progress toward meeting Oregon’s college- and career-ready standards, the Common Core State Standards. Smarter Balanced requires more time and depth of knowledge than the previous test.

There is not clear agreement on the test’s purpose

The Smarter Balanced test is intended to provide a measure for accountability, data to identify achievement gaps, and information about whether students meet standards overall, and many value these purposes. We also heard from educators who feel the test should be more useful in the classroom. However, other tools may be better suited for that purpose. The Oregon Department of Education could take a more active role in communicating about the test’s purpose.

The results of the test are not used consistently

Schools, school districts and the state use Smarter Balanced test results inconsistently, and sometimes not at all. Educators told us that it would be easier to use results if they received them sooner. Many reported that additional guidance on how to use results would be helpful. Some also reported that a more comprehensive assessment system would be useful.

Many reported test administration challenges

Educators described schoolwide challenges in the first year of administering Smarter Balanced. Testing did not just affect the classrooms that were actively testing, but could also place additional staffing and resource demands on the entire school. However, some said there were fewer challenges in the second year.

Testing took away from other duties of school and school district personnel. Some schools hired additional staff or substitutes specifically for testing. Testing also tied up computer labs for months at some schools. Time spent taking and preparing for the test took away from instruction time.

Some student populations may experience more negative impacts than others

Standardized testing may affect certain student groups more than others. Despite having accommodations, we heard concerns that the test’s greater use of technology and language may increase the risk that some students will not be able to demonstrate their abilities accurately. Students who take longer to complete the assessment may miss more instruction time.

Students in special education, English Language Learners, and students with less exposure to technology and typing may be particularly affected.

Recommendations

We recommend that the Oregon Department of Education improve communication, foster consistent use of results and continue its commitment to improve test administration. Our specific recommendations can be found on page 18 of the report.

Agency Response

The full agency response can be found at the end of the report.

Featured New Audit Release Noteworthy

Oregon Department of Forestry: Actions Needed to Address Strain on Workforce and Programs from Wildfires

Executive Summary


Three consecutive severe fire seasons have forced the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) to spend more time fighting fires and less time on its other programs. Recent fires have also strained ODF personnel, who often work long hours away from home.

ODF needs to take action to reduce these impacts on personnel and programs. Systematic, long-term workforce planning that takes into account resources needed for both fire and non-fire programs; development of a more effective business improvement process; better evaluation of wildfire prevention and detection measures; and increased mitigation efforts are steps ODF should take to help address current and future challenges.

Read full report here

ODF needs to analyze and clearly communicate full impacts of wildfires on the agency

Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, CC BY

Since 2013, intense fire seasons have resulted in ODF staff spending more time on fire assignments. However, ODF does not currently collect, analyze and communicate to the Legislature and its stakeholders the full impacts of fires on its programs and personnel. This information is necessary for ODF to adequately plan and manage its workforce to meet existing and future demands.

Not only are more employees participating in fire related assignments, but these employees are working much longer hours. Overtime hours spent on fire protection by permanent employees have increased by 197% in recent years.

While the wildfire suppression workload has increased, staffing has not kept pace. ODF is fighting more severe fires with about the same full-time equivalent employees it had nearly 20 years ago. Fires have also created more administrative work, including preparing claims for cost reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies, and making catastrophic wildfire insurance claims and emergency funding requests. To date several of these claims have not been completely processed, which resulted in ODF borrowing to finance these fire related costs. During the past three fire seasons, ODF paid $1.5 million in interest on this borrowing.

ODF staff in Salem and field offices are feeling overworked and are experiencing stress and fatigue as a result of fire related work. Despite the strain of consecutive severe fire seasons, ODF Management reports that employees remain committed to participating in the agency’s firefighting efforts. However, as staff devote more time to wildfire seasons, employees and agency leadership have expressed concerns about ODF’s ability to continue performing at current service levels.

Recent fires have caused delays in work for ODF’s non-fire programs, as employees in these programs are deployed to fire incidents. Examples include delays in developing annual operations plans for state forests, completing Forest Practices Act compliance reporting, and updating bald eagle protection rules. Fires have also created more work for employees in these programs after fires are controlled, such as salvage logging operations and developing and implementing reforestation plans.

Non-fire program contributions to fire response capacity are not fully known

ODF2

Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, CC BY

Non-fire programs contribute to ODF’s firefighting and to maintaining fire readiness. But ODF is not tracking the contributions these programs make, which are absorbed into their respective budgets. While we identified some of these contributions, ODF needs a full accounting of the contributions and related costs to adequately plan for both fire and non-fire work.

Non-fire programs contribute staff hours to fight fires and to Incident Management command and support teams. For example during the last three fire seasons, the average number of hours State Forests Program staff billed to fire protection doubled to 19,038 hours.
These programs also pay other fire-related expenses such as the cost of specialized fire qualification training, and certain fire equipment and supplies. ODF needs better information on these costs and how changes to staffing, funding and workload in these non-fire programs affect fire operation capacity.

Agency wide workforce planning needed

ODF needs a systematic workforce planning process to effectively address current and emerging challenges to its programs and workforce. Workforce analysis is needed to identify gaps and to monitor, evaluate, and revise resources in order to meet the agency’s strategic goals now and in the future. ODF has completed some analysis, but more is needed, and it should include all necessary firefighting resources.

At ODF, workforce planning is complicated by staff who have program duties and firefighting responsibilities; long training times for fire duties; and the need to meet multiple program missions, including responding to wildfires. But complete workforce analysis and planning, that takes these factors into account, can help ODF ensure it sustainably meets both its fire and non-fire responsibilities.

Systematic process for business improvements needed

As fires have increased in recent years, so have the complexity and number of financial transactions associated with suppressing those fires. Today, ODF has systems in place to collect and assess process improvement suggestions, but some are fragmented and incomplete. We found that sometimes suggestions were not fully reviewed and/or implemented, and decisions were not made or communicated.

A better system that fully reviews, implements and communicates decisions made could help ODF address its increased workload by reducing unnecessary costs and inefficiencies. It could also help to improve the alignment between existing resources and program objectives and priorities.

Evaluation of prevention and detection efforts can be improved

ODF takes some proactive steps to prevent and detect wildfires, but the agency does not systematically evaluate the costs and relative effectiveness of different strategies. Evaluating these strategies could help ODF focus its resources on the most cost-effective strategies to keep suppression costs and wildfire damages low. Better information about the money and staff time spent on different prevention and detection activities and fire causes could aid this evaluation.

More work needed to mitigate wildfire risks and target strategies

ODF3

Fuel Reduction. Photo by Oregon State University, CC BY-SA

ODF, private landowners, and federal agencies work to reduce wildfire risks posed by the accumulation of small trees and vegetation in forests resulting from decades of fire suppression, land use changes, past land management practices, and other factors. Despite these efforts, there are millions of acres of land in Oregon in high wildfire risk areas across all ownerships, including federal, state and private lands. Some of this land is highly important to our water supply. The resources currently dedicated to mitigation work are unlikely to meet this challenge. To reduce wildfire risks, some of these areas may need treatment through methods such as prescribed burning, thinning, or removal of forest underbrush in forests and around homes.

Recommendations

This audit recommends ways ODF can build on its current efforts and accomplishments, and make improvements to address current and future challenges. Our detailed recommendations for ODF management are included on Page 31. They include recommendations for collecting and analyzing better information on fire impacts and costs, developing a systematic, future oriented workforce planning process, and enhancing the agency’s business improvement process. We also recommend actions for ODF to improve wildfire prevention, detection, and mitigation efforts.

Agency Response

The agency agrees with the report findings and recommendations. The full agency response can be found at the end of this report.

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