Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Auditor General: "The Board and the vendor lost credibility..."

I'm back from vacation...and apparently just in time! Auditor General Jack Wagner's audit of the wine kiosk fiasco -- sorry, program -- is out today, and it's pretty much unforgiving. Well, the man's an auditor; of course it's not forgiving, that's not his job, and this was a fiasco. Some pertinent stuff (the full report's here in PDF format; the AG's statement is here (added emphases are mine, of course)):
Wagner’s special performance audit...chronicled the problems that existed from the beginning of the ill-fated kiosk program. The six findings, are:
  • The board used kiosk technology that effectively controlled the purchase of alcohol (about the only positive statement in the whole report)
  • The board followed state procurement requirements, but the request for proposals did not enable fair and just competition
  • The board and the sole responding vendor negotiated the kiosk contract in ways more advantageous to the vendor than necessary
  • The board spent $1.12 million more than it took in over two fiscal years and has invoiced the vendor for the losses. But the vendor has not paid
  • The board and the vendor lost credibility when the kiosks malfunctioned,
  • The board overstated the convenience of the kiosks
Note that he says "effectively controlled the purchase of alcohol." Not "efficiently," or "nonintrusively." The same thing could have been "effected" by a live person standing at each kiosk -- which the malfunctions eventually also required -- and the statement would have still been true. But weak competition on an RFP, vendor-favorable negotiations (when the vendor is heavily invested in campaign contributions to a sitting governor), losing money on a supposedly cost-free project, operation failures during the busiest sales season of the year, and the total cluelessness on the definition of "convenience?"

Look, read the statement, which covers most of this. Read the actual report, and pay particular attention to Section C, beginning on page 71, where the Board responds to the report. The AG's report takes that response and pretty much shreds it, saying over and over that the Board simply chose not to respond to some (the most awkward) of its findings.

But the message here? The wine kiosk program was a failure. Black and white, accountant-certified, this thing was a catastrophe. The break-even point -- as stated by the PLCB -- was 210 bottles a week per kiosk; only 3 out of 32 machines met that threshold; 17 -- over half! -- sold under 100 bottles a week. They simply didn't work: in the first three months of operation, "auditors determined that 1 out of every 21 transactions was problematic." That's leaving the general shadiness of the contract and the apparent lack of any escape hatch for the Board aside!

And the response from PJ Stapleton (who apparently may have been reading a different report)? "As it has done throughout this process, the Board will attempt to take whatever steps it can to maximize the possibility that the wine kiosk program will succeed."

PJ. Dude. It's over. Walmart blew you off. Wegmans blew you off. Where are you going to put these things? In Post Offices? In courthouses? Wait, wait, I know: how about in the State Stores! 

As I have said for a long time, the major problem at this agency -- beyond the tonedeaf attitude, beyond the terrible business model, beyond the insane insistence that the little stores out in the sticks carry thousands of SKUs when there's no demand for them, beyond the personnel system that doesn't properly reward product knowledge and sales competence, beyond all these serious problems -- is hubris. PJ and his Pals on the Board, Joe Da CEO, and their lieutenants have consistently responded to criticism with an attitude of 'you don't understand, what you call failure is innovation; what you call unethical is faithful to the letter of the law; what you call inconvenient is controlling the best interests of the people of the Commonwealth.' As if we are somehow too stupid to see that this is simply very bad management.

Let me lay this out in such straightforward terms that it can't be ignored.
  • The wine kiosks are a public relations and sales disaster that have indeed cost the Board credibility
  • The very real disaster of the PLCB's Oracle-based inventory system (subject of another audit) that wound up costing the Board hundreds of thousands in ruined wine (though they say it's fine, and what the hell do they care) and ad hoc storage fees in an absolute orgy of managerial ignorance
  • The "courtesy contract," which exposed the PLCB's total lack of basic sales skills and was awarded in a way that showed poor judgment and created the appearance of a conflict of interest, not to mention being an expense that was not worthwhile...according to the AG again (in...yeah, another special audit)
  • The embarrassing spectacle of over 20 workers at the PLCB's Philly warehouse being fired for undisclosed "financial irregularities" -- and they are still "undisclosed" 10 months after Joe Da CEO promised an investigation
  • The PLCB's large number of unprofitable stores -- in a police-enforced monopoly -- and questionable business models
  • The beer registration raid fiasco, where the PLCB's ineptly-kept beer registration database led to pathetically comic 'raids' by armed BLCE officers on three respectable Philly restaurants and one respectable Philly wholesaler, costing them thousands in lost time and sales (read it all here and here)
  • The terrible record on nuisance bars (sure, it's the BLCE doing the enforcement, but the PLCB does the administrative punishment, and it's soooooo sloooooowwww....)
That's just in three years. Three years! I mean, speaking pragmatically, PJ and Conti have been a godsend; they're making my job easier. But speaking as a PA taxpayer? When are they going to resign because of their incompetence?! These are major screwups, this is a terribly run agency that lurches from one disaster to another, reacting to the Legislature, arrogantly ignoring the Governor and lawyerly disagreeing with the black and white criticisms of the Auditor General. But who do they answer to? Apparently no one. Which is, in my mind, one of the biggest Reasons of all that they need to be completely restructured, and the retail monopoly taken away from them.


Albert Brooks said...

I'd like someone to name one, just one thing the PLCB has innovated since Newman left. TableLeaf doesn't count.

Matthew said...

Hopefully they have managed to "innovate" the fall of the PLCB marketing monopoly and regulatory reform. Hopefully.