Friday, November 13, 2009

Didja Forget About the Courtesy Contract?

Do you remember how pissed off everyone was about the PLCB's "courtesy training contract?" Back in March, it came out that the agency was going to spend $173,820 on training State Store System clerks "how to greet someone, where to stand, and how to read a customer's cues." When that hit the fan, the PLCB tried to distance themselves from it by denying it was about manners: "A $173,000 contract on teaching manners – as has been widely reported – would be ridiculous," said PLCB Chairman PJ Stapleton. Yet the RFP for the training stated the following as the very first objective for the training:

1. Improve basic customer service skills, such as greeting customers appropriately, servicing customers, and completing sales with professionalism and courtesy."
"Greeting customers appropriately" and "completing sales with...courtesy" don't involve manners? Let's not be coy: bullshit, PJ. "Basic customer service skills" are good manners.

But that's old news...and that's the whole point of this post. We all got terribly upset -- rightfully so -- and more so when we found out that the contract had been awarded to the husband of one of the PLCB's regional managers. We were outraged, and an audit was called for, which exonerated the agency on legal grounds, but found that the agency had exercised poor judgment in awarding the contract to the husband of a manager and that "training to improve employee courtesy, manners and product knowledge wasn't a worthwhile expense." HA! So there, PLCB!

...and then we forgot about it, leaving them off the hook, again.

Well, not my man Eric Heyl at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Eric's a columnist there, calls me for comment (a classic at the end of that one) from time-to-time when he has a booze story. For some reason, the Pittsburgh newspapers are hotter on exposing the PLCB's idiocy that the Philly papers are, and Heyl wields a blowtorch in his latest column, titled "Excuse me, but your discourtesy is showing."

Heyl brought back the courtesy contract. It went ahead, you know: training started in April, and Heyl, a taxpayer, wanted to know if what we'd bought (although the agency states that it's not tax money, it's their revenue that paid for the training, I can only assume they're being facetious in this claim: if they hadn't spent it, it would have gone into the general fund, so I fail to see a meaningful difference) was having any effect. As he put it:

The controversy was dying a lingering death in relative anonymity when I decided to nurse the poor thing back to health. I did so by using the LCB's own statistics to attempt to measure the manner-polishing program's effectiveness since it began in April.
See, the PLCB actually keeps track of customer service complaints, and Heyl got those numbers. What triggered the desire to improve customer service, the training? 84 customer service complaints between April and October of 2008...out of 27.2 million transactions. As Heyl said, "No wonder Solutions 21 was hired. Agency officials had to be embarrassed over that deluge of dissatisfaction." Indeed.

So, what did we buy, how has the training addressed this burning issue? "Between April and October 2009, the LCB received 103 complaints in 29.7 million transactions." Yeah. It got worse: one complaint for every 288,000 transactions, as opposed to one in every 324,000 before the training. The training was ridiculous, unnecessary, and it was ineffective. Nice trifecta.

Heyl asked Joe "CEO" Conti about this, bless his soul (all emphases added):

"Eighty to 100 complaints is really so anecdotal that I don't know that we'd use those as a barometer" of the program's success, he said[...] (But 84 complaints was enough to trigger a training contract at $173,00?)
The LCB can renew the Solutions 21 contract annually for the next five years. While the agency hopes to eventually perform the training in-house, Conti would not commit to that happening as soon as next year.
"At this point, I can't give you a firm yes or no as to whether we will need an extension (for Solutions 21)," he said.

How about you, boys and girls? Can you give "CEO" Conti a firm yes or no as to whether we need any more of Solutions 21's "training?" Well, don't bother, because he won't listen. Tell your state Senator! Tell your Representative! Tell them something like this (I just did):
The PLCB hired Solutions 21 to teach basic sales manners to their clerks in April. The Auditor General found that the agency had exercised poor judgment in awarding the contract to the husband of a PLCB manager, and that such training was in general not a worthwhile expense. Not only that, it hasn't worked: the PLCB's own statistics show that customer service complaints have gone up since the training started. PLCB CEO Joe Conti recently said that Solutions 21's contract may be extended. Please consider advising Mr. Conti that this would be an unwise use of funds that would otherwise go to the General Fund.
Get mad. Get active. After all, as Arlo said, "If you want to end war and stuff, you got to sing loud."

Friday, November 6, 2009

"More proof: State should exit liquor business"

That's a quote from the Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial page. They're citing a study from the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Analysis (full text of the study is here, and it's worth a read), a libertarian-leaning PA think tank, that found...well, essentially found what I was saying here, and then backed it up with facts and citations. They found that Pennsylvania's "control" of liquor and wine sales had no social benefit for the state.

Here's what the summary of the study says (all emphasis (except as noted) added by me, cuz that's what I do):
...arguments might be made for state control as a means of achieving some desired social outcome. In Pennsylvania's case, advocates claim that the social goals of reducing alcohol consumption, underage drinking, and alcohol-related traffic deaths justify controlling wholesale and retail alcohol markets.
Evidence from 48 states over time shows no link between market controls and these social goals [their emphasis]. Divestiture of Pennsylvania's state liquor stores would represent a financial windfall to the state, while posing no threat to public safety, as it would not result in the social ills many opponents of privatization fear.

Now. If all that's true, and it certainly would seem to be -- they've compared it the best way possible, looking at other states with similar and different regulations -- why do we keep the State Store System? It's not about protecting you from yourself. It's about the money -- oh, sorry, I mean the revenue. (Because the State doesn't take your money, they enhance the revenue flow.) And we already knew that. So if we're going to make the same (or better) in taxes under privatization, and there's no horrible effects of drinking too much under privatization lurking, and privatization could make the state a huge windfall and create a lot of jobs...what the hell are we waiting for?

As the editorial concludes: "It is no longer 1933. It is time for the state to get out of the liquor control business."