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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How NorCo Can Fix Its Row Offices

Northampton County Executive John Brown has been in office for 2 1/2 years. In that time, his biggest accomplishment was to con a number of high-ranking state Republicans into touting him as a candidate for state auditor general. But here in Northampton County, he has failed to deliver on his promise of efficient delivery of county services. The basic reason for this is the way he has treated what he has once called the County's most valuable asset - the county worker. Thanks to his decision to unilaterally reduce health benefits, a decision that turned out to be illegal for many workers, the county saw its most experienced workers - its veterans - rush into retirement. Morale is in the tank. In the meantime, staff shortages continue to pop up in nearly every department. Brown balances his budget on the backs of County workers, resulting in less efficient delivery of county services.

Nowhere is this weakness more evident than in the row offices, and more specifically, in the Civil Division. Brown claimed he would improve performance in that office through the increased use of technology. The truth is that when a copy machine broke down last week, the staff was so shorthanded it was unable to make copies of divorce decrees and custody orders for members of the public. One lady who spent an hour traveling to the courthouse last week was actually sent home, empty-handed.

So much for customer service.

Increased use of technology has led to an online civil docket that county officials never bothered to check with the people who actually use these records. They know better. The result was a docket that failed to inform the public that not all records are included, making it impossible for anyone to rely on this docket and exposing the county to liability for missed judgments.

Even now, the County is supposedly working on an online civil records system, but has failed to enlist the assistance of the staffers, lawyers and searchers who would actually use these systems.

So much for "continuous improvement" from the end users.

This top-down approach always fails. I have seen it before with previous Executives.

If the County really wants to halt the turnover in the row offices, there are two things it needs to do.

First, cross-training. I have mentioned this several times over the years. Everyone agrees it's a wonderful idea. Nobody actually does it. In the Civil Division, where the manpower shortage is acute, the problem is compounded because most of the clerks are only trained to do a few tasks. Every employee in that department should be trained to do every task required, from taking passport applications to entering judgments. Every one of them. Right now, one employee can sit at her desk with nothing to do while another is pulling her hair out. Every employee in that office should be trained to perform every task.

This cross-training should extend to all the row offices - Civil, Criminal and Orphans's Court. An employee who does a marriage license should be able to take a payment for a fine, process a passport application and sit down to help a battered woman fill out a Protection from Abuse Petition.

Part of this cross-training should require a periodic rotation of row office employees so each becomes familiar with the tasks in different departments. Then, when there is a manpower crunch in one office, employees in another row office can come to the rescue.

Employees in each row office would still spend most of their time in that office. But they should be rotated out for one month every year.

This will give them a better understanding of the criminal and civil justice system, will make their work more interesting and make them better workers. At the same time, customer service will improve.

Second, the tests for deputy positions need to change.
Northampton County is supposed to be a merit personnel system in which employees who excel are rewarded. Instead, most employees in the row offices fail the tests for deputy positions because those tests have no relation to what they actually do. They are asked questions about software programs they don't use. As a result the County hires a deputy from the outside who knows software programs, but knows nothing about the functions within that office.

When these employees are continually passed over, they get disgusted and leave. The merit personnel system has become instead a joke designed to trap people in place.

Incidentally, the copy machine is fixed, thanks to a call to Brown's office from Agent 99. Turns out it just needed a bottle of toner.


Anonymous said...

how do you think you are going to cross train flunkies who can't even change the toner? Ah duh!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Bernie O'Hare said...

You can't change toner when you don't have it. Duh. You'd find better answers on how to be more efficient by talking to anyone of these clerks than some consultant from C3. Duh. That's what Brown said he would do when he was running. Duh. Your low opinion of the workforce is noted.

Anonymous said...

You are so correct Bernie. I've been with the county for over 25 years and I see this time and time again. For example, you have an employee that say works in a certain department for over 20 years. They have done all the job duties to the tee. A job promotion becomes available. This person tests as well as someone who's only done the job for a few years. Now, you would think seniority would have some baring on the county's decision. But, no ! they only consider the test score. So, the person with only a few years on the job is awarded the promotion. What a joke ! This of course gives employees no reason to stay with the county hence the poor morale. Take a look at the Jail. From what I hear promotions are not given to the best candidate but the one who scores the best on some test? Thanks for brining this to light Bernie.

Anonymous said...

Additionally, the whole Department of Court Services should be transferred to the Courts. The Courts know what is needed within these divisions better than anyone. And they don't have to abide or constrained by County HR regs.

Bernie O'Hare said...

This proposal has been made before, too. PJ Baratta even appeared before Council. Everyone agrees it's a wonderful idea. Nobody does a damn thing.

Anonymous said...

Take a look at NorCo county itself. Employees being suspended with pay while HR drags THIER feet in an "investigation"
Unable to make descion allowing employees to sit home while getting paid
Large retro payments for raise increases not followed through on.
Wasting taxpayers dollars. No one is keeping an eye on things

Anonymous said...

This pic is hilarious, butt I am sure the feet are a cut and paste?! I have redd comments and like the pic top heavy government playing the blame game on those that do the reel work?!
RE:publican redd no party affiliation