State Politics

Q&A: Bob Geddes takes reins at Idaho’s ‘agency for state agencies’

Bob Geddes had already completed 10 years as president pro tem of the Idaho Senate — longer than anyone else — when Gov. Butch Otter asked him to take the reins of the troubled state Tax Commission early in 2011. Geddes agreed to do it and took a one-year leave from his work as a geologist for Monsanto. He left the commission in 2012, returning to work part time at Monsanto and taking on full-time work as a lobbyist for the Idaho Farm Bureau.

About a month ago, Otter again sought out Geddes, this time to lead the Department of Administration, whose mismanagement of the Idaho Education Network’s broadband contract cost former department director Teresa Luna her job. Geddes readily accepted. His first day in the post was Monday. He sat for an interview with Statesman reporter Bill Dentzer on Thursday.

Three top takeaways:

•  Geddes doesn’t foresee a major department shake-up: “I don’t anticipate that there will be a lot of directional changes.”

•  He thinks local governing bodies should be able to contract with the best source, whether it’s off a state contract or individually and locally sourced: “It’s a good thing for local leaders to have flexibility to either use a state contract or not.”

•  He wants to improve state purchasing practices: “We want to make purchasing agreements with good organizations who can work efficiently, honestly and fairly with state agencies and state departments.”

Idaho Statesman: When did the governor first approach you about taking the Department of Administration post?

Bob Geddes: About three weeks ago.

So was it out of the blue?

It kind of was. Actually, my first interaction wasn’t with the governor. It was with David Hensley, the chief of staff. He asked me if I was interested and I indicated that I was and it’s kind of progressed since then.

How did they frame it to you?

I’ve been pretty close with the governor since I served in the Senate. As you probably know I was chairman of the Tax Commission for one year. When I accepted that position, because my background and experience is not too significant with respect to taxes, I told him that it really wasn’t a priority appointment for me. But I agreed to help him and I accepted that appointment on a one-year basis. The understanding that we had was if something else or something different came along that I would have been more comfortable with, then I would have considered that....The governor just kind of store that away and kept it in his memory, and this position came along and he thought of me apparently....

I don’t profess to know exactly what and how to do this job yet. But I hope I can learn quickly and come up to speed quickly to help them through. My experience tells me this: that there are just some incredibly talented people who work for Department of Administration. I’m a team player. I’ll work closely with them. I do not have a lot of ideas of what needs to change at this point in time or if anything needs to change with regard to personnel or the direction that the department has been working on. I know that they have struggled with the IEN effort and that’s probably a little bit of the challenge, to restore the credibility of the department, to bring it back to what I know they can be.

One thing that I can bring to the effort of restoring the credibility of this agency is I have a very good and close relationship with the Legislature, both the House and the Senate, from my years of service there. I hope to work with them to demonstrate that this department is and will in the future be meeting the mission that they’re assigned to accomplish by the Legislature.

What was your opinion as the news developed on the IEN matter and how it was handled?

I was in the Legislature when that whole concept started to develop. Certainly everyone who supported that had hoped that it would turn out just great and provide great opportunities not only for students trying to get better opportunities to learn and to advance and to obtain college credits while still in high school and so forth. But I think the vision for that is a lot broader. It can be used in so many other areas of community and economic development, business functions that can share in that opportunity. That’s what we really didn’t see ever get off the ground before the problems started to arise. Would it work under the current contract? I don’t know. But certainly we’re going to do our part in supporting that concept to move forward.

Do you think the governor sought you out because of your relationships in the Legislature and your time there?

I hope he did. Because that’s one area that I think I can truly bring my talents to bear. The governor, he and I worked closely during my tenure as the pro tem. I have confidence in him and I hope that he has equally as much confidence in me. You might recall when I went to work for the Tax Commission, that was an agency in turmoil as well. And within a few short months we made some real progress, re-instilling a desire to continue to work at the agency by the people that were looking for other alternatives and seeking other employment.

Is there a similar morale problem here?

I’ve been in the department only a couple of times. I’ve visited with some people that are probably not representative of the rank and file employees. But from what I’ve seen right now I don’t think there’s as significant a morale issue as there was at the Tax Commission when I arrived there.

I’m sure any controversy among state employees is always a significant issue and it needs to be managed and managed well. But there are a lot of moving parts in this agency. They do so many different things. And I’ve only been able to meet a few of the employees. That will be one of my primary efforts: to get to know not only the agency but the people who fill significant roles and responsibilities within the department.

Do you have any marching orders or mandate from the governor in terms of “I want you to clean this up or address this first”?

The governor and I have not talked about any of the specifics. I have had some discussions with the chief of staff. One of my big concerns was what kind of support I would have from the governor and the chief of staff and I was guaranteed that that support would be there to assist in working through the significant issues that the department is facing. I trust that they will be there to help out.

The significant issues — let’s just bullet-point them again.

I think the budget issue is significant with pending lawsuit and legal fees. Obviously the IEN is a significant challenge at this moment in time. Even though it’s been transferred to the Department of Education, there is a role for the Department of Administration to be involved and to support that transition and maybe at some point in the future to bring back to make it a little less specific on education and make it available for other local and state agencies to be involved.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation was critical about how this will affect your state pension. Do you have any response to that? Is that part of what makes you want to jump into this?

Well, my past experience shows that I’m not that worried about retirement, because I left that same opportunity when I left the Tax Commission. Is it a factor? Well, of course it is. If there wasn’t a salary associated with the position, I probably couldn’t justify it or afford to engage in this. There’s only one way that I can increase my retirement and that is to work here and be successful for the long term. Short term, my retirement hasn’t changed one penny and it won’t change until I’ve proved myself and proved my ability to manage this organization....

The Department of Administration is the agency of state government that serves all the other agencies of state government. So there’s a lot of thing that I need to come up to speed on...In defense of myself and of the governor to assign someone like me to administrate this department, those 16 years that I spent in the Senate, understanding the fundamentals and the basics of how state government operates will be critical experience for me to refer back to and to lean on in order for me to be successful here. And it doesn’t hurt at all to know most of those legislators.

What kind of reaction did you get from your former colleagues in the Legislature when they heard about this?

I’ve had a lot of my friends reach out to me and congratulate me on this appointment. I have had a lot of them who said why in the world did you accept that job. I take that as a little bit of tongue-in-cheek, I guess, their concern for me. Idaho is a small state and you get to know a lot of people as you work in positions in state government. The outreach to me has been pretty surprising.

Aside from the obvious issues, do you have any kind of approach you already know you’re going to take as you come into this?

I’m looking at what the Legislature did this last session. When I sat in the pro tem’s office, you could kind of tell where the concerns were based on the interim committees that were assigned (by the Legislature) and staffed year to year. They’ve staffed a committee on purchasing. I take that as a very powerful message from the Legislature that that is a concern and we need to look into our process.

From a personal standpoint, I do have an agenda with regard to purchasing. We want to make purchasing agreements with good organizations who can work efficiently, honestly and fairly with state agencies and state departments. That will benefit the taxpayer. It means a lot to our budget at various levels of government throughout the state.

I also feel on a more local level it’s a good thing for local leaders to have flexibility to either use a state contract or not. In small communities, which Idaho has a large number of, if it makes sense for them to use local vendors, they should do that. If it builds the community and provides employment opportunities to keep the business sector strong and healthy, then they should do that, within reason. If they want to use a state contract and they can use it and it saves them money and it helps them be more efficient, then they need to use that as well.

So if there is another recommendation for something like IEN, a statewide operation, you wouldn’t want to see every district or every local entity locked into that if they could find a better deal somewhere else?

Absolutely. Those local entities of government should have the flexibility to manage their responsibilities as they see fit. If we can help their efficiency, if we can save them money and they choose to use the state’s leverage ability, then that’s fine, too.

Was there any kind of litmus test or any questionnaire that the governor’s office informally put to you?

You know, I know the governor so well and we worked so closely together over the last two decades that I think the governor understands who I am and what I represent. He didn’t ask those questions, although I filled out a lot of forms determining that I would not engage in issues that are conflict of interest and things like that.

But they didn’t say, “This is our position, do you support it”?

No, and I have confidence that the governor is closely enough connected with what we do and I’m certainly willing to share. If I go out on a limb, I’m happy to bring the governor and the chief of staff and everybody else there with me. And my guess is that they won’t let me get too far out on it ...

I don’t have much of an opportunity to gradually work into this job. It’s going to hit me full force, I’m sure, on Monday ...

I’ve got a huge learning curve. I’m hoping that the people in this department will just continue to work hard until I can catch up to them. I don’t anticipate that there will be a lot of directional changes. If I can tweak some things along the way to hopefully improve efficiency and build better relationships between difference aspects of the department, that’s where I think I need to focus my efforts. I know we’re involved in some legal issues that are pending regarding the IEN right now, and I don’t know what exactly my role or responsibilities will be in that regard. We’ll hopefully get that behind us as soon as possible...

Some of the discomfort that you have when you assume a position like this is just gaining the trust and confidence of those state employees who work for this agency, and certainly I want to alleviate their fears that I’m not coming in to make significant changes. As we discussed, the governor hasn’t given me a laundry list of things to take care of or to clean up. I’m just hoping that they’ll continue to do what they can and bring me along in the process, and hopefully through that effort we can work together to improve where needed or sustain what’s been done in the past.

What is the Department of Adminstration?

The department is known as the agency for state agencies, providing services and overseeing practices that serve state government. It has four divisions:

Division of Insurance and Internal Support (DIIS): Provides financial support services, internal control/auditing, human resources, payroll support and project management functions within the Department and to various small state agencies. Acts as state’s property and liability insurance manager; contracts and administers benefits for state employees and retirees.

Division of Public Works (DPW): Manages the construction, alteration, and repair of all public buildings for Idaho’s state agencies.

Division of Purchasing (DOP): Manages purchasing policy and implementation for property acquisitions (goods and services) for state executive agencies, including solicitation, issuance of contracts and training for professional purchasing staff.

The Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO): Supports the Idaho Technology Authority (ITA). ITA reviews and evaluates the information technology (IT) and telecommunications systems presently in use by state agencies, and prepares statewide short and long-range IT and telecommunications plans. ITA establishes statewide IT and telecommunications policies, standards, guidelines, and conventions assuring uniformity and compatibility of state agency systems.

For more information, visit the department’s website.