On Gov’s Secret Evaluations & Evaluating the Gov’s Openness

Earlier this year, state Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter told state legislators that Gov. Bill Haslam believes so strongly in evaluation of employees that he has personally evaluated the performance of everyone in his cabinet.
Curious how our state government’s top managers fared under gubernatorial scrutiny, yours truly made a request — in accord with the state’s open records law — for a copy of the evaluations. In a week or so, the reply came back: Sorry, there are no such records. The governor’s evaluations of his commissioners were done orally.
So, while Hunter’s comment made it sound like the governor is a hands-on, businesslike manager making professional evaluations, the significance of his reviews — if there is any — remains secret. Maybe it was just, “Hey, Rebecca, you’re doing a really great job!”

Hunter’s remark came in pushing the administration’s bill to overhaul the state civil service system. The new law will require state employees to undergo regular evaluations, and she is in charge of putting together the evaluation process, which presumably will not be all oral.
Also presumably, the governor, despite being a state employee, will not be evaluated by Hunter or anyone else in state government — except maybe orally and privately, outside the governor’s earshot.
So maybe some attempt at evaluation of the governor and his administration in print would be in order. For starters, let’s try the area of open government.
Previous governors have also doubtless provided oral evaluations of their cabinet members, whether in the form of an old-fashioned tongue-lashing, typically in private, or in the form of effusive praise, typically done in public. In this aspect of openness, then, Haslam is probably rated about the same as past governors. In other aspects, he’s certainly not the worst in recent decades.
That honor would go to the late former Gov. Ray Blanton, who once famously declared he would answer no “negative questions” from the media and instructed staff to stay silent on many matters.
Haslam is also surely not the best in overall openness. That would be the late Gov. Ned McWherter, who was capable of remarkable bombast but at the same time extraordinarily straightforward and candid, given the predilection of all politicians toward posturing and evasion. More importantly to those seeking information from government, he would personally prod staff to open things up, even when it caused bureaucratic discomfort.
To proceed with the evaluation:
In accessibility, the governor himself deserves fairly high marks from media. He has frequent public appearances and makes himself available to answer questions. His communications staff is also quite accessible. On a scale of one to five, with one being the worst and five the best, the administration warrants a four.
The answers to questions, of course, are often evasive and even inane as the governor strives to avoid controversy.
In policy, the transparency rhetoric is there but the practice is something else again. Haslam began his reign by ditching an executive order put in place by his predecessor that required more disclosure from top officials than does state law. He has since pushed legislation that would wrap the cloak of confidentiality around some governmental doings, most recently a bill that would have concealed ownership of companies receiving cash grants from the state. Nothing really obnoxious has been implemented, though, and the rhetoric sounds good. So he gets maybe a three on the one-to-five scale.
The administration’s greatest shortcoming in the open government area, in this evaluator’s opinion, is in the nuts-and-bolts area of actually making information available.
As a recent example, a request to the Department of Human Resources for a list of those applying to become executive director of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, made on the day after the deadline passed, was refused until a “comprehensive” list could be developed. Eight days later, after some prodding, a list was provided — one that omitted four of the 18 people who had applied.
Without boring you with other examples, suffice to say that extracting information from the administration is often like pulling teeth — except it takes longer. Rating of two, with a hope that we’re not headed to No. 1.

Note: This is a column written for the News Sentinel, also available HERE.

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