The House's payroll and financial counseling offices suffer from high turnover, miscommunication and low morale, according to a new report from acting House Inspector General Theresa Grafenstine.
Grafenstine's office began reviewing the two divisions, which are run by Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, two months ago, at the request of the House Administration Committee. Dozens of Member offices had complained of poor service in the Payroll & Benefits Office and the Office of Financial Counseling, which handle the paychecks and reimbursement vouchers for every House employee.
In the resulting 57-page report, investigators describe an anxiety-filled atmosphere within the CAO and offer recommendations for improving communication and performance.
"A higher degree of anxiety and uncertainty appears to exist among staff in these areas," investigators wrote in a draft copy of the report obtained by Roll Call. "Frequent management changes and staff turnover contribute to a sense of organizational instability and uncertainty."
But on Monday, Beard dismissed much of the report's conclusions, pointing to the Inspector General's method of interviewing unnamed CAO employees and repeating perceptions that the Inspector General could not verify.
In a statement, the CAO's office calls the report "an inaccurate and unbalanced snapshot" of the payroll and finance divisions based on "unattributed misinformation provided by a handful of staff."
"The Office of the Chief Administrative Office is troubled by the lack of sound analysis in the Office of the Inspector General's (OIG) report," the statement reads. "The report fails to examine the time lapse of critical improvements made over the past three years in the Payroll & Benefits and Financial Counseling departments. For some employees, these changes were an uncomfortable but necessary departure from the broken, business-as-usual system the current CAO inherited."
Those changes are necessary to transform largely paper-based offices to electronic systems, Beard said in an interview. While staffers must now either mail or hand in their reimbursement forms, for example, they will soon be able to do it all electronically. Moving toward such a "self-service" system means many structural changes — and such shuffling can be difficult for some employees, he said.
But Beard pledged to not "lead the organization backward" because of a few complaints.
"I'm extremely disappointed. The process that they used was a process of interviewing some CAO employees — not all, but some," Beard said. "This group of employees are kind of like dreamers. They don't realize the world has changed."
Investigators acknowledge in the report that they can't verify all employees' statements. For the report, they interviewed 31 current and former employees of the Financial Counseling Office and 46 current and former employees of the Payroll & Benefits Office. Some of the report's findings are attributed to "some" employees, making it difficult to ascertain how many shared that view.
But the report also offers some facts.
For example, the Office of Financial Counseling's average turnaround for a reimbursement check was 6.7 days in April and May, far longer than the 10 minutes it takes to approve a perfectly filed reimbursement. In the past year, the turnaround time has been unpredictable, partly a result of "bottlenecks" caused by staffing and processing, according to the Inspector General report. Further unavoidable obstacles — such as new documentation standards and the winter blizzards — have also contributed to the delay.
Turnover within the Office of Financial Counseling has also skyrocketed in the past couple of years, investigators say. In 2008, the turnover rate was 4.43 percent. In 2009, it jumped to 24.51 percent, and this year it reached 29.03 percent. Three of the five leaders in the office have less than one year of experience in the House.
Investigators offer about 60 recommendations in the report, many based on improved communication. But they also recommend that the CAO improve hiring and training of staff, as well as improve the timing of big changes within the agency.
Beard said his office was already working on training. But Democrats and Republicans on the House Administration Committee want to see him commit to more. Kyle Anderson, spokesman for Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), emphasized in a statement that the Inspector General used "Generally Accepted Accounting Principles" for its report, as it has done for more than 100 similar reviews.
"Those long standing and industry accepted standards leave little room for interpretation or error, and the Committee supports the approach the OIG took during this review," Anderson said in an e-mail. "The Committee hopes that the CAO listens to the recommendations in this report, and continues to work to improve the service it delivers to this House community in these two areas."
Ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) also voiced his support for the report. Beard's response, he said in a statement, "appears to be a criticism of the IG methodology, instead of a substantive response" to the recommendations.
"We're very confident in the thoroughness and accuracy of the IG's work, which has greatly benefited the House," he said.