Tuesday, May 15, 2012

IP to Grant Oversight: Study Calls for Host of Improvements at California Stem Cell Agency

The $3 billion California stem cell agency is laboring under a range of problems that include protection of its intellectual property and management of its nearly 500 grants plus an inadequate ability to track its own performance, a seven-month study said yesterday.

The performance audit by the Moss Adams accounting firm of Seattle, Wash., made 27 recommendations for improvements, including more effort to ease strain connected to the agency's controversial dual executive arrangement. The study said that the nearly eight-year-old agency has many "opportunities" to "enhance performance reporting and decision making, strengthen effectiveness and efficiency, retain essential human resources and leverage technology."

In response to the report, the stem cell agency said, "(M)anagement concurs with the findings and recommendations....The recommendations are focused and constructive. CIRM is already implementing many of these recommendations, and we will be investigating the others in the coming months."

The performance audit is the first ever made of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The audit is required by state law and was commissioned by the agency at a cost of $234,944. For years, the agency for years had resisted calls for a performance audit until it sought legislative approval in 2010 for removal of a 50-person cap on its staff. Originally, the performance audit legislation would have put the study in the hands of the only state body charged with oversight of the agency and its board. CIRM, however, was successful in lobbying to have that provision removed.

The 54-page report identified once again a number of issues that have troubled the stem cell agency for some years. Moss made 12 top priority recommendations, many of which dealt with information technology and grants management. Many of the recommendations focused on providing better and faster information on performance outcomes, which the audit said has been slow to come and hard to generate.

The report said,
"Key performance information is not readily available to CIRM leadership and other stakeholders on an ongoing basis. CIRM board members and senior management do not receive regularly updated, enterprise-level performance information. The ability to evaluate performance against strategic goals is critical to effective leadership and program monitoring, evaluation, and reporting."
The audit stated,
"CIRM does not effectively communicate outcome-based performance internally or externally. As such, CIRM does not focus on performance metrics as part of its (staff) meeting process."
The report additionally said,
"CIRM does not have an integrated financial information system....The use of spreadsheets results in labor intensive processes to generate reports and respond to information inquiries, since data must be pulled from multiple spreadsheets, a process that may be prone to error. ...Spreadsheets are not linked to each other or a master report. CIRM does not have a comprehensive list of spreadsheets or instructions for how to maintain the files or generate reports from them."
Moss Adams said that CIRM needed to do a better job in "bond forecasting," a reference to the California state bonds that finance virtually every aspect of the agency's operations. CIRM directors were caught by surprise a few years ago when they suddenly learned the agency was up against a major cash crunch.

Some of the recommendations will require more work from CIRM grantees and their technology transfer offices in an effort to track intellectual property and grant outcomes. The report also recommended a speed-up in CIRM's review of progress reports from grant recipients, which have been lagging completion by several months.

The dual executive arrangement, which was written into law by Prop. 71, has troubled CIRM since nearly day one. CIRM's own external review panel also identified it as problem two years ago. The executive structure is virtually impossible to change because of the political difficulty in making alterations in the ballot initiative.

Moss-Adams said,
"The working relationship between the chairman’s office and the president’s office has vastly improved over the past year, but there are still opportunities for improvement."
The performance audit recommended,
"Make every effort to manage and operate as one cohesive organization, while recognizing the varying roles, responsibilities, and authorities that exist with positions in both the chairman’s office and president’s office."
One of the top 12 recommendations involved CIRM's public relations/communications effort. CIRM Chairman J.T. Thomas told directors last June that the agency was in a "communications war."

Moss-Adams said,
"CIRM does not have a communication plan, and there is lack of clarity on how to address mission-based communication to CIRM’s various target audiences, especially the general public....The best way to facilitate results-based communications is to 1) quantify goals and outcomes in CIRM’s strategic plan and 2) report on achievement of those goals and outcomes by enhancing CIRM’s annual report with additional performance-based information."
Another performance assessment of the stem cell agency is also underway. It is being conducted by the prestigious Institute of Medicine and is costing CIRM $700,000. That report is expected this fall.

CIRM's board of directors is scheduled to consider the Moss Adams report at its meeting May 24.

Our take: While the findings and recommendations of the performance audit were delicately worded in many cases, they brought out issues that need to be addressed, many of which have been around for a great deal of time. At their meeting next week, CIRM directors should act very directly on the recommendations. They can do that by requiring a written report each month from CIRM Chairman J.T. Thomas and CIRM President Alan Trounson on the specific steps that they are taking to implement the performance audit's recommendations. Otherwise, the inevitable drift will set in.

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