Since the early 1990s, the state of Oregon has maintained a hotline for citizens to report government waste, fraud and abuse; the state Legislature, recognizing a good idea, made the hotline part of state law in 1995.
Over the years, the hotline has been credited with shedding light on some $16 million in wasteful spending, according to a recent report in The Oregonian newspaper. The hotline helped to identify $1.4 million in wasteful spending by the Oregon Commission for the Blind in 2010, $1.2 million in questionable expenses by the Sisters School District in 2006 and $2.3 million by the Department of Human Services in 2003.
The number of calls that the hotline takes each year is increasing. But, as The Oregonian noted, it's been at least three years since a tip has identified any significant wasteful spending.
In part, that's simply because of the nature of this sort of tip line: The vast majority of the complaints turn out to be unfounded or beyond the scope of state government. The problem, as The Oregonian reported, is that the hotline costs real money to operate: nearly $200,000 a year. And it involves some significant investment in staff time: The newspaper found that auditors in the Secretary of State's office required 1,700 hours last year to analyze tips.
The hotline is staffed 24 hours a day by operators who contract with the state. State auditors check submissions every day, and eight auditors review tips in detail every two weeks, the newspaper reported.
It's the nature of these hotlines that most of the complaints quickly can be dismissed. But there's a substantial number that require at least some digging — and others require considerable work to analyze. Last year, 96 percent of the tips turned out to be unsubstantiated, irrelevant or more appropriately handled outside state government.
Still, with a yearly investment of more than $200,000 in expenses and staff time, legislators were vowing to take a hard look at the hotline and whether it should be continued.
We understand how tight state budgets have been. But here's an area where the Legislature should move with caution. And if legislators decide the time has come to pull the plug on the hotline, they'd better be sure that there's a suitable substitute ready to go.
Simply as a symbolic gesture, it doesn't send a good sign to taxpayers to shut down the government-waste hotline — even if you can make the case that it's been losing money the past few years. It especially looks bad to shut it down in a period when state government keeps trying to find new ways to increase the amount of money it takes from taxpayers, not to mention the fact that so many state agencies seem to be struggling. Having an active hotline in place helps send a message to taxpayers that the government is serious about running efficiently.
And the argument that the vast majority of complaints to the hotline don't pan out doesn't hold much water here: That's always going to be the case with any sort of waste-reporting system.
Granted, there may be ways to make the system more efficient. But any kind of substitute program, regardless of the form it takes, needs to be simple to use and well-publicized. We presume that the hotline is relatively simple to use: You dial a phone number or access a website and file your report. But it certainly isn't well-publicized: In fact, we were unaware that the hotline existed until we read The Oregonian's story.
So, yes, the time may be right to review the hotline program, with an eye toward making it more effective. But until the day comes when government operates at peak efficiency (and that day may never come), we need to have a way for taxpayers to report government waste. (mm)