EVERETT — An independent consultant has confirmed what many Snohomish County government leaders have been saying for a long time: Politics is gumming up the county’s department of information services.
The chief culprit is poor communication between County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office and other elected leaders, the consultant said. The audit also found that information services appears more attentive to computer problems for departments under Reardon’s control.
“There’s a disconnect in service levels and it behooves everybody to get to the bottom of this,” said Thomas Krippaehne of Moss Adams LLP, a Seattle auditing consultant. “It’s affecting the county’s performance and the county’s business with respect to technology.”
The audit says that the difference in views between the executive’s office and the rest of government is “pronounced” and calls attention to “an unusual factor” during the audit because interviews with people under Reardon’s authority were “short and not much information” was shared.
Information services employs about 100 people and has an annual budget of about $18.5 million. Responsible for managing the county’s technology and printing needs, it reports to the executive’s office, but serves all of county government.
Last year, the County Council attached a formal note to the 2010 budget to study the possibility of moving information services away from Reardon’s control and to the auditor’s office. The council also contracted Moss Adams for the $50,000 study. The actions were in response to widespread complaints among county workers about poor customer service.
Information services also has come under fire for spending $87,000 on software for storing county e-mails — which are public records — but never implementing the system.
County councilmen on Monday discussed the findings of the Moss Adams report at a public meeting with the consultant.
Discussion focused on the areas that need improvement, though the written report also mentions bright spots such as the county’s efforts to keep pace with technological change.
The County Council expects by May 28 to see a draft plan from Reardon’s staff for how to respond to the audit’s recommendations.
Information services director Larry Calter and his direct boss, executive director Peter Camp, also joined Monday’s conversation, with Camp doing almost all of the talking.
After the meeting, Council Chairman Dave Gossett said he was disappointed by the “tone of the response” from executive office staff and wondered whether they were taking the consultant’s concerns seriously.
Camp insisted that he will follow the recommendations — in collaboration with other departments.
“It’s going to be job No. 1 to implement these recommendations,” he said.
Camp said no evidence he’s seen supports the audit’s conclusion that differences in service levels were felt among county departments. He also said he was present during the consultant’s interviews, and all questions were answered.
Camp acknowledged communication problems between Reardon’s office and other elected officials, but said they are “always a two-way thing.” Some communications problems resulted, he said, because the information services staff was so focused on keeping up with changing technology.
Gossett said he hoped to avoid major restructuring, such as moving information services to the already busy county auditor, “but if these problems aren’t addressed, then that’s certainly the kind of step we have to take.”
The report suggests considering other alternatives for running the department, such as a technology oversight committee.
In a statement, Auditor Carolyn Weikel urged that all options be exhausted before moving the department to her office, as some have suggested.
“Although changing who (the Department of Information Services) reports to might facilitate some improvement, I cannot support dismantling the current structure of government until all means to effect change have been exhausted,” Weikel said.
Camp has only been in his role overseeing information services since February.
Before that, those duties fell to Deputy Executive Mark Soine. Camp said the change was a regular rotation of duties.
Since then, Camp has reported making headway talking to elected officials and working through problems. A meeting with Treasurer Kirke Sievers last week went well, both men reported.
“He’s a very good communicator,” Sievers said.
The new audit report confirms there had been communication problems. Reardon has maintained that no elected officials told him about computer troubles. Sievers insisted he told Calter about problems but his concerns apparently never reached Reardon’s desk.
“We assumed that those department managers communicate with their boss,” Sievers said. “This shows why he wasn’t informed. There was no up-and-down-the-ladder communication with his departments and with him.”
The communication breakdown points to concerns about Reardon’s leadership style, according to Sievers.
“It’s easy when you’re a leader to say that ‘Nobody told me there was a problem,’ ” Sievers said. “Well, it is his problem. He is the executive.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.