Studies of Economy and Efficiency in Government Are Not New

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in The Library of Virginia Official Newsletter, May/June 2001.  It has been edited slightly.

Efficiency in government. Responsible spending. Eliminate waste in government. These phrases are often tossed about, especially during political campaigns. Calls for responsible government spending and efficiency are not new, and probably will remain a constant theme in our political process.

One early attempt at governmental reform was the State Commission on Economy and Efficiency, which functioned from 1916 until 1918. The papers of this Commission were part of an accession of miscellaneous papers from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office. The General Assembly created the Commission in 1916 to make a “careful and detailed study of the organization and methods of the State and local governments” within Virginia. The five members of the Commission—P. H. Drewry, George L. Browning, J. Calvin Moss, Richard Evelyn Byrd, and LeRoy Hodges—made a detailed study of state government, presented their findings, and made recommendations to the General Assembly in 1918. Many of these recommendations were implemented and still influence the way state government operates today.

The creation of Virginia’s Commission on Economy and Efficiency was in part due to a national trend in budget reform. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, concerns about the integrity and accountability of political leaders was spreading among the United States, first at the municipal level and then to the federal and state government. The reform movement sought to separate politics from the administration, establish executive responsibility, and improve efficiency in existing practices. The corporate model was generally regarded as the ideal in terms of uniformity of operations and fiscal responsibility, and many argued that this was the model that government should follow. Additional research in the areas of public administration and finance led to the development of the first “think tanks” to address the workings of local government.

In 1909, President William Howard Taft, in his first report to Congress, called for a detailed study of the operations of the federal government and the relations of its many parts. This federal Commission on Economy and Efficiency presented its report, “The Need for a National Budget” to Congress in 1912, emphasizing the need for responsible fiscal management. This report spurred state governments to undertake similar studies, and in 1916, the Virginia General Assembly created the Commission on Economy and Efficiency.

The Commission held its first meeting in September 1916 to organize the Commission – Senator P. H. Drewry was elected the Chairman of the Committee and LeRoy Hodges was elected secretary. Unfortunately, they received only $1,000 and were forced to focus on state government rather than both state and local. The committee hoped volunteers would assist with the study, including fund raising, but the entrance of the United States in World War I caused the Commission to abandon its plans, as contributions to war work activities took priority.

To undertake their mission within the means allotted to them, the Commission created two survey forms for the heads of state agencies to complete and return. Sixty-four reports were filed from 63 agencies of state government. The Commission had difficulty in obtaining responses from the agencies, and was diligent in nudging the agencies along towards completing their reports.

The first form created by the Commission requested a complete report “on the organization and work of each agency” to be written by the agency head; it was designed to “give the Commission information about the state’s affairs from the point of view of officials themselves.” This information included the history of the department and divisions, the type of work and legal limitations performed by the department, information on employees, recommendations for streamlining work activities, an organizational chart of the agency, and a copy of the agency’s budget. Some of the responses to this form were sparse, but other responses were very detailed. These detailed replies provide an excellent glimpse into the history of the agency as well as the perceptions of the agency held by its employees at a specific time. The second survey form requested information about agency personnel, including name, job title, work hours, and rate of pay.

The Commission studied the data on the returned surveys, created detailed charts of the government agencies, and made recommendations to the General Assembly in their report in 1918. The Commission noted that due to the incredible growth of state government in Virginia since its establishment, there were  a “large number of departments, bureaus, and other agencies [that] have been founded with no attempt to coordinate functions or make readjustments.” . Agencies were added, as they were needed, without consideration of whether existing agencies might be able to assume additional duties.

The Commission made a number of recommendations, many of which are in practice today. These recommendations include the introduction of a modern budget system, including a proposed budget law. The proposed law would provide for “the preparation and review of estimates for expenditures and revenue,” and would establish a budget system “for all state departments, bureaus, divisions, officers, boards, commissions, institutions, and other agencies and undertakings receiving or asking financial aid from the State of Virginia.” A budget law was passed in 1918, and the first state budget was prepared in 1920. The Commission also recommended a uniform fiscal and appropriations year, running from July 1 to June 30–at the time of the report, the appropriations year ran from March to February, and the fiscal year ran from October to September.

The Commission also recommended the creation of the Office of the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds to oversee the “care and supervision of all State buildings and the Capitol grounds.” Additionally, the Commission recommended that the employment of special counsel by state agencies should be stopped and that “all work of this character should be referred to the Attorney General.” Other recommendations included: standardizing expense accounts, work days and work hours among agencies; locating offices of similar work near each other; instituting a collective purchase system; and establishing a civil service system for state employees.

The Commission on Economy and Efficiency had a daunting task, but completed it with a thoroughness that is amazing considering the lack of funds and personnel dedicated to the project. This collection is a great resource for researchers of Virginia government—not only in terms of the detailed agency reports, but also as a record of the steps that the Commonwealth undertook to achieve fiscal responsibility and accountability for its citizens. This collection documents the evolution of state government to its present configuration.

-Laura Drake-Davis, former State Records Archivist

Posted by in State Records Blog Posts.

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