She’s been a Pentagon insider, had the ear of two governors and held a high-level job with the world’s biggest gambling conglomerate.
Now Marybel Batjer, 58, is drawing on decades of public- and private-sector experience as California state government’s first-ever Government Operations Agency secretary. Her post touches everything from labor contracts and purchasing to public pensions and computer systems. Gov. Jerry Brown launched the agency last summer, aiming to make government more efficient. Batjer’s performance is a test of that vision.
Batjer, a Democrat, says her biggest challenge is to modernize a state machine that suffers from inertia, struggles to embrace cutting-edge technology and faces steep competition for young talent. Many changes will need union support and a willingness to risk failure. Then there’s the narrow path she must walk between praising state employees’ hard work while simultaneously insisting that their work must change.
She has to do all that without inviting rebuke from big-government and union critics, like her former boss, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who publicly tee off on government costs.
“I think government has been the whipping boy, the easy-get vote, the red meat. It’s so easy,” Batjer said during a recent interview in her office across the street from the Capitol. “It used to be that ‘bureaucrat’ was an honorable word. It was a wonderful word. It’s a pejorative word now. And that’s wrong. And shame on both sides of the aisle for whipping government.”
The recession and years of budget cuts that followed added volume to the critics, even as Schwarzenegger and Brown foisted furloughs on state workers until last June. With the state’s budget on the mend, Batjer said she wants to boost morale.
“I emphasize and think a lot about the value of doing a job and how someone feels good about it,” Batjer said. “Telling someone to feel good or that they’re damn lucky to have a job is really a terrible way of conducting oneself.”
Batjer was a vice president with Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment Inc., before Brown tapped her last summer to head government operations. Before that, she was Schwarzenegger’s Cabinet secretary, chief of staff for Nevada’s former Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, and held high-level positions in two California state departments. In the 1980s and 1990s, Batjer held several positions in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, including special assistant to the secretary of the Navy and deputy executive secretary of the National Security Council.
These days, some of her work seems mundane by comparison. For example, Batjer is pushing “form reform,” an update of the thousands of documents the state uses to conduct business.
“Some modernization of government is not necessarily sexy,” she said. “It’s not going to give you a ‘wow,’ but it’s certainly going to help people do their jobs better.”
Batjer also wants to fundamentally change how the state hires a new generation of employees raised in the online world.
“We have to look at those young people in their 20s who are going to be entering, hopefully, our workforce. They have totally grown up the digital world,” Batjer said. “Then we bring them into state government and hand them a pencil, hand them a piece of paper and say, ‘Hey, John, go over and sit in that cubicle, that 5-by-5 cubicle, come in at 8 o’clock, go home at 5, and by the way, here’s your career path,’ And it’s all this gobbledygook: (staff services manager) I, SSM II the nomenclature makes no sense.”
Many of the incoming generation’s most talented prospects “aren’t on a clock. They may do their best work from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. and they may go to the gym and work out or they may play games for two or three hours to just chill and then go to sleep,” she said. “They’re just in a different period. It’s happening now. And we as an employer need to be prepared for that and take advantage of that.”
The state human resources department, which answers to Batjer, is reviewing government jobs from the ground up, aiming to make itself “a more attractive employer” to that new generation of workers, she said.
Still, the old guard – many of them managers – will need to be brought along.
“You really need to give people tools,” Batjer said. “And tools aren’t just inanimate objects. They’re how you manage change and how you think about managing people and how you engage them.”
State technology presents another challenge. California’s 10 biggest IT projects alone are budgeted at about $3.5 billion, The government’s recent history suggests that few, if any, will come in on time and within budget.
Batjer, who also oversees the Department of Technology, can list the reasons at a machine-gun clip: Technology buys take too long. State law and vendor contracts aren’t flexible. Departments launch projects without wringing out other efficiencies first. They don’t test enough before programs launch. Many trip over converting old data for their new systems.
To battle those flaws, the state has started new process for developing tech projects that requires departments to hit certain benchmarks before they proceed, such as building a solid business case for a new system or successfully testing a program before wide application. Projects already in the pipeline, however, are locked in to the old, rigid way of development.
Still, Batjer thinks the new “stage-gate” process will make government more flexible over time. She also recognizes that any innovation entails risk and the criticism that goes with failure. Fear of either can stifle progress, she said.
“We’re criticized and criticized and criticized,” Batjer said. “But let’s not tie ourselves in knots and infuse more rigidity into a process that really needs to be flexible and nimble.”