Friday, March 06, 2009

CIRM Calendar Hooha Raises Transparency Issues; Agency Says Calendars Cost $23 Each

The California stem cell agency said today that its 2009 calendar cost $23 apiece and provided figures that indicated the total expense for the calendars was about $35,310.

Based on the numbers provided by CIRM, that seems to mean that 1,535 calendars were printed. Earlier, CIRM said the calendars were sent free to its grant recipients and trainees to remind them "365 days a year where their funding comes from." The agency has 448 recipients and trainees, according to figures on its web site. Calendars were also sent to an unspecified number of "constituents."

In comments on our earlier item on CIRM's 2009 calendar, some readers of this blog said production of expensive, free calendars is a waste of taxpayer money.

Here is the current breakdown on the calendar cost, based on a CIRM report and information supplied by Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for the agency: Printing, $14,000; design, $10,200, and $11,110, which was part of a larger contract.

The $11,110 is a new figure and came today from Gibbons. He said it was part of a $45,000 expenditure with Abbott and Company that CIRM now says was for "image development, office art design and framing." The Abbott contract was initially identified as involving the calendar. After the California Stem Cell Report inquired about the calendar project, the description of Abbott contract was altered on the CIRM web site to remove any mention of a calendar. No footnote was provided on the PDF document to notify the public or directors that a change had been made from an earlier version.

Here is the text of what Gibbons sent earlier today concerning our original item on this subject.
"For the record, you never asked me for the cost per calendar. Instead you chose to make one of your usual worst-case projections. The portion of the Abbott contract that covered the calendar was $11,110, which made the cost per calendar $23. Also, this project began in July, long before the complete budget meltdown."
More than a week ago, we asked Gibbons for the total number printed. He has not provided that number. Following his latest email today, we asked again for that information as well as the number distributed and the cost of postage.

As for our "projections," you can read them here along with our assumptions. They were based on information from CIRM, which was incomplete then and remains incomplete today.

The CIRM calendar is a minor expense in the agency's $13 million operational budget. But outside contracts are not. They now total more than $3 million, up from $2.7 million, as the result of action earlier this week. The outsourcing, which often poses major oversight issues for government agencies, is the second largest category in the budget.

How the agency describes the contracts and other budget items and responds to questions about them is basic to the agency's transparency and openness. The calendar issue is not the only one. A lobbying contract with the Nielsen, Merksamer firm in Sacramento continues to be described as "public education." There may be other fanciful descriptions, but without an examination of contracts and other documents, it is impossible to tell.

Several years ago, CIRM directors initiated the requirement for regular reports on outside contracting because they felt they were not fully informed. While creative budgeting occurs in every organization, without good information it is impossible to make good decisions.

Obviously it is nice to offer gestures of good will to "constituents" and others associated with any enterprise, but CIRM's calendar project came at an impropitious time. The project began shortly after a salary freeze at the CIRM that ran through December. As we remarked then, such freezes affect those on the lower end of the pay scale much more harshly than at the top levels. Perhaps during the holidays, CIRM management could have spread that $35,310 among employees making less than $70,000 a year. That would have been a nice gesture as well.

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