Children's Services a Window into Spectacular Mess of San Francisco Government

When navigating the labyrinth of local government, be mindful of this guy
The Examiner today reported that the city's services for young children may be consolidated into one department. Since San Francisco is the city where Children of Men is considered a documentary and since this is a wonky story with the word "might" in the headline, readers might give it a pass.

That'd be a shame. Even if you don't have kids, it's worth examining the way this city caters to those who do. It's a striking example of so much of what's wrong with San Francisco's government. The Ex gently notes that, for locals hoping to receive services, "navigating the system can be confusing."

Keeping track of the characters on Downton Abbey " can be confusing." Navigating the minotaur-worthy labyrinth of overlapping providers in the field of early childhood education is outright beguiling. Fiefdom-building, needless duplication, mind-numbing administrative and financial webs -- we've got it all. And San Francisco government has known about this for a while.

SF Weekly reported on the astoundingly tangled early childhood education morass in our July 2011 cover story "Inefficient By Design." We noted that an audit by the Board of Supervisors Budget and Legislative Analyst revealed the following:

[Early childhood education] is overseen by not one but three separate entities: The Department of Children, Youth, and their Families (DCYF); the Human Services Agency (HSA); and the Children and Families First Commission (CFC).

A 2010 audit noted that there is no central, accountable policymaking body for early childhood education. As a result, it's not uncommon for care providers to be awarded contracts by all three agencies to undertake essentially the same services. In doing so, providers are given three different answers to the same question; are gauged by three performance evaluations (sometimes with varying results); and must enter data into three separate systems. Making matters more complicated, the city also has a Childcare Planning and Advisory Council and Childrens' Fund Citizens' Advisory Committee.

The funding structure for the three major agencies has become such a Gordian knot that they each administer programs that are largely financed by the other two. ... Not surprisingly, the audit found "better program coordination" would have kept the agencies from underspending their mandates by at least $1 million -- at a time when demand for early childhood education far outstrips the city's supply.

This is looking at things from the point of view of administration. For families actually receiving the services, evidently, it was no picnic either.

San Francisco does not have a monopoly on bad government. We do excel, however, at excusing and entrenching bad government for the sake of bad government and to the detriment of the governed. As we further noted in our cover story, "while this city and its voters were generous enough to establish local funding [for early childhood education], creating a streamlined system to effectively serve the children isn't happening. While the agencies couldn't argue with the audit's findings, they bristled at the notion of consolidation. To date, the audit has never received a public hearing. ...  Consolidating San Francisco's redundant jobs, committees, or even departments is a tough sell. Redundancies provide city politicians with patronage opportunities and union workers with jobs."

Then-City Administrator Ed Lee chaired a working group on consolidation in 2009 (yes, the city formed a committee to deem it had too many committees). While most of that group's suggestions were spurned for the reasons stated above, it seems Mayor Ed Lee is beginning to listen to City Administrator Ed Lee's suggestions.

If that is, indeed, the case -- if this city's myriad overlapping entities are streamlined and consolidated -- that might be one of the mayor's most meritorious accomplishments.

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