Worthwhile efforts at bureaucratic reform
Supervisor Bates wants to improve 'customer service' by all agencies, including Sheriff's Department
Officials often talk about improving "customer service" in government agencies, but reforms typically are slow going given that there are no real customers in government. The private sector, based on voluntary transactions, has true customers, who can choose to shop elsewhere. Government – as George Washington and the nation's founders liked to remind us – is about force. Those in government have power over those outside it. This relationship is more of one between a ruler and his subjects than one between a business owner and his customers. Furthermore, government workers have unions and civil-service protections that make it difficult to punish misbehavior, let alone bad service.
But it's still a worthy endeavor for elected officials to try to reform the permanent bureaucracy. And so we applaud a modest idea by Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates to implement a customer-service improvement program for all county agencies, including the Sheriff's Department. It's a two-part proposal.
The first part is called the Police Community Reconciliation Program, which "will assist community members in navigating and understanding the OCSD [Orange County Sheriff's Department]complaint process and offer an opportunity for deputies and diverse community members to come together with the guidance of a mediator to resolve complaints."
The second part is the Customer Care Tracking System, which "will expand the existing feedback option currently available on the county's Web site for online submission of compliments, service requests or concerns." That system is for all county agencies.
Recently, the board approved the creation of an Office of Independent Review, which is designed to provide outside oversight of Sheriff's Department investigations into allegations of abusive behavior by deputies. This panel, approved in the wake of the brutal beating death of John Chamberlain in the O.C. Jail, is designed to deal with allegations of criminal conduct by sheriff's employees or ones that could result in serious disciplinary action. The county approved that plan, which will be run by a small professional staff, over a civilian oversight proposal that would have been run by community members, for a variety of reasons including a state Supreme Court ruling that limited the access of such panels to law enforcement personnel records.
In our discussion with her last week, Supervisor Bates said the goal of the new program is to deal with more minor complaints that shouldn't take up the time of an OIR. Currently, the Sheriff's Department and police agencies have complaint processes, but in our experience citizen complaints are not treated seriously. For instance, the only requirement a police department has is, after a period of time, to tell the citizen whether the complaint has been "sustained" or "not sustained" – that applies even to complaints of a serious nature. And police agencies have a more formal process for dealing with complaints than other county departments.
The deputies union opposed the proposal, which is no surprise given its retrograde opposition to the Office of Independent Review and to other reforms. Supervisor Bates agreed to pull the matter for 30 days to give the deputies more time to evaluate it, but she intends to bring it back for a vote. This idea deserves widespread support.