Thursday, November 19, 2020

'Demeaning and Uncalled For:' A CIRM Complaint About the Use of the Word 'Obscure'

The California stem cell agency today sharply criticized an item on the California Stem Cell Report as "demeaning and uncalled for" because it described the four-person Citizens Financial Accountability and Oversight Committee (CFAOC) as "obscure."

The offending word was used in an article yesterday that previewed the first meeting of the committee in nearly 15 months. The CFAOC was created as part of the initiative that created the stem cell agency in 2004, which is known officially as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)

The CFAOC reviews CIRM financial documents that have already been reviewed in public by CIRM's 29-member governing board, which is officially known as the Independent Citizen's Oversight Committee (ICOC). The CFAOC has no legal authority over CIRM beyond making possible recommendations.

The article in question began like this:

"One of the more obscure entities in state government is scheduled to meet this Friday to review the financial affairs of California's stem cell agency, a matter that now runs to nearly $12 billion.

"The panel is the Citizen's Financial Accountability Oversight Committee (CFAOC), which was created in 2004 along with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the stem cell agency is formally known. The CFAOC is charged with reviewing the financial practices of the stem cell agency. The CFAOC is the only state panel legally charged with that function. The governor and the legislature have no authority to do so."

Here is the text of the email expressing CIRM's displeasure with the use of the word "obscure." The email was written by Kevin McCormack, senior director of communication at CIRM.

"I think your characterization of the CFAOC in your latest column as 'One of the more obscure government entities' was demeaning and uncalled for. It may not have a high profile but it certainly has an important role. It was created by the voters in 2004 for a very specific purpose, to make sure we are held accountable, every year, for our financial performance. As one of the common, if erroneous, complaints about CIRM is that we are not accountable to the legislature or any other legislative body in Sacramento I would have thought the CFAOC should be praised not dismissed.


"This is a group of people who come together with the sole goal of making sure the state’s money is well spent. The members cover a broad range of professions but have one thing in common, they have vast experience in their area. They are appointed by the Controller, the Treasurer, the President pro Tempore of the Senate, and the Speaker of the Assembly (and one by CIRM). These are nobody’s fools, they are diligent in the way they work, meticulous in their analysis of how we work, and forceful in making recommendations. Which we then follow.


"At CIRM we are used to people criticizing us, more often than not incorrectly. The CFAOC deserves better."

As the author of the article in question, I have high regard for the CIRM staff and McCormack as well as the persons on the CFAOC. Nonetheless, it is an obscure state entitity, as are many state departments. More than 200 exist and most of them are obscure. Consider the State Allocation Board, for example, or the First 5 California

The count of 200 does not include state advisory bodies such as the CFAOC. If it did, the number would likely run into the thousands. Such bodies can do important work, such as was done by the Little Hoover Commission, an obscure state entity whose analysis and recommendations concerning CIRM won significant praise by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which studied CIRM for months. 

What all these bodies have in common is that they are virtually unknown to the public, even to persons who consider themselves well-informed. 

The California Stem Cell Report writes about the CFAOC because of its connection to CIRM and the fact that both were created by the same 2004 initiative -- a measure criticized as ballot-box budgeting and that sometimes has also created impediments for CIRM. (See the IOM findings and recommendations.)

My bottom line? For a state body to be considered obscure is not a mark of shame. It is just a matter of fact.  

(Editor's note: A very early version of this item incorrectly said that Friday's meeting of the CFAOC will be the first in 19 months. The correct figure is 15 months.)



  1. Anonymous4:32 PM

    Why are they so sensitive? It is what it is. I attended one once- the CIRM people didn't take it very seriously- not my observation, a comment from a member of that body.

  2. To paraphrase the great John Updike, McCormack and indeed many in Cirm leadership are "masters of the imagined sleight." They gobble great amounts of cash, feel sort of justified but also sheepish about it and have in response become very sensitive.


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