Laura Chick’s fresh approach to California government

When the state budget is $28 billion in the red with all the easy cuts already made, it’s hard to argue with Gov.-elect Jerry Brown for eliminating the Office of the Inspector General, which is run by former L.A. Controller Laura Chick. Chick was tasked with ensuring that California’s $50 billion in federal stimulus funding was properly spent, but Brown said her office was “redundant” because the job could easily be assigned to the already established Bureau of State Audits, state Controller’s Office or governor’s Department of Finance. And it could.

But that misses the point. Chick’s value lay in not just another layer of auditing but in an outsider’s sometimes brazen, sometimes naive but always fresh approach to how government does its work. Chick ruffled feathers by zooming right past the stimulus programs she was tracking as she testified at legislative hearings and insinuated herself into administration meetings on all manner of government programs. She attacked the bureaucracy’s penchant for making as few waves, and changes, as possible.

Audits aren’t online? Why not? Agencies aren’t penalized for failing to follow through on suggested improvements? How come? Chick demanded to know. It was still early in her tenure, but in some instances, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s support, she was beginning to get some answers.

Schwarzenegger’s campaign promises to “blow up the boxes of government” and perform a “top-to-bottom review” of the Capitol and its programs largely came to nothing, as he realized the scope and the entrenchment of the public bureaucracy. Critics with less insight or wisdom were willing to huff about a state filled with “waste, fraud and abuse,” but some, including Chick, saw more subtle, but in the end just as damaging, phenomena at work. She saw that forcing civil servants and elected officials out of their comfort zones while modernizing their systems — and modernizing their thinking — promised more savings than campaigns to nail supposed self-dealers in the Capitol.


Chick wasn’t the only recent breath of fresh air in Sacramento. As Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner’s fellow Republicans went hunting for fraud and abuse, he took a more thoughtful approach to saving money and, without laying off or furloughing staff, cut his operating budget 13% in part by doing things as simple as buying a color printer to produce his own brochures. Like Chick, he showed that government can be made more efficient.

Brown needs some of that spirit, and he may be hard put to find it in agencies as entrenched as the Bureau of State Audits. Perhaps he can’t afford Chick’s office, but he — and California — likewise cannot afford to lose the insistent, questioning and fresh approach that she brought.