Baer: Gov. Wolf’s costly consultant sure talks pretty

Governor Tom Wolf and other dignitaries take a surrey ride along the Schuylkill River Trail after the announcement of more work and funding for the trail Monday afternoon in Philadelphia.

Indulge me.

After decades of covering government and politics, I get a tad annoyed with double-talk and gobbledygook.

So after reading a 79-page report from global consultant McKinsey & Co., for which Gov. Wolf spent $1.8 million of your money to “achieve a sustainable budget,” I need a mini-rant.

For starters, one way to get to 79 pages is writing like this:

“This report provides external benchmarking information for select programmatic expenditures and makes references to legislative and financial proposals put forward by the administration or agency leadership.”

In other words, here’s some stuff on stuff already proposed.

Or this: “These initiatives are not intended to be detailed designs or implementation plans.”

In other words, here’s some thinking on some possibilities.

I’ll grant that every enterprise can benefit from a look-see through fresh eyes. But there’s little freshness here. And, I’d argue, less benefit. More a classic example of what insiders call “consultant speak.”

It echoes decades-old plans and prior reports under multiple governors out to cut bureaucracy: Sell off some state land, consolidate some agencies, pay closer attention to contracts, end duplicative programs, and so on.

It comes as Wolf asserts -- after insisting for two years that billions of dollars in new taxes are needed to “achieve a sustainable budget”-- that we suddenly can save billions of dollars solely by, as he said in his budget speech, “making Harrisburg work smarter.”

Could have started working smarter by saving $1.8 million.

The report is replete with suggestions such as “reduce inefficient processing activities,” employ “best practices,” “eliminate redundancy.”

Good ideas, no?

It doesn’t say sell off State Stores, which Wolf has opposed. It says make them more profitable by buying some booze from suppliers for less and selling other booze to customers for more. I’m not making this up.

It also says because the state buys tons of other stuff we could save tons of money by improving contract negotiations. Who knew?

And it says savings can be had through prompt-payment discounts or extended payment terms and “broader financing decisions.” But it notes that figuring actual savings as a result “would require analysis beyond the scope of this report.”

So, basically, we don’t know.

Wolf’s proposed municipal fee for state police protection is in there. It’s an old proposal dating back at least to Gov. Tom Ridge in the ’90s. McKinsey suggests state savings (really municipal costs) from $63 million to $252 million -- though a specific “pricing model” is “beyond the scope of this report.”

But McKinsey notes $100 million in current or prior year “unspent appropriations” is apparently just lying around. It recommends the state “redeploy” these funds.

I know, I know, you recommend redeployment to taxpayers.

Speaking of which, the report tags the Department of Revenue for declines in collecting delinquent sales and corporate taxes. McKinsey says (I love this) the department “could consider increasing productivity of staff.”

State Budget Secretary Randy Albright concedes that much of the report centers on “things we were already working on” but insists that it’s helpful to have review, validation, and comparison to what other states are doing.

A McKinsey spokesman says the company doesn’t comment on client work.

But clearly McKinsey isn’t impressed with how our state is run: “Several processing activities occur in agencies across the commonwealth that could benefit from process optimization, including call center operations.”

In other words, y’all ain’t getting it done, and we heard about that unemployment comp call-center mess.

There’s a small irony here. A potential GOP opponent to Wolf’s reelection bid, Western Pennsylvania businessman Paul Mango, is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Pittsburgh office. If Mango runs, maybe we’ll see a TV ad: “When Tom Wolf needed help running the state, he turned to Paul Mango’s company.”

The question is, does the company’s report spark a reinvented state, or end up with past reports on some shelf labeled “consultant speak?”

(If you dare, the full report’s at budget.pa.gov.)