Sunday, November 12, 2017

Because the Statute Says So

I recently had an intriguing conversation with another state's  (not from Florida) workers' compensation regulator. I am encouraged by these opportunities to interact with leadership from other states, and to understand what they perceive to be the challenges of administering Worker's Compensation systems. I hear expressions of frustration with the inhibitions to change, concerns about perceptions of their agendas and efforts, frustration with operational and budgetary impediments to progress. I hear pride in accomplishments and successes. These are some great conversations. 

This particular regulator recently happened upon some statutory language of concern in that state. The language had existed for years, but was not being followed. The statute required that state's workers' compensation agency to assimilate and report certain data, which it wasn't. The discovery led to questioning why compliance was ignored regarding this particular statute. Essentially, the recurrent answer was apparently "that's the way it's always been done," ("it says that, but we've never done that"). There was also some measure of "if anyone cared," then there would be questions and comments directed to this particular data absence.

Change for the sake of change can be more frustrating than necessary. I am not a fan of making changes without being able to explain both the "why" and the "how." We always have to keep in mind that there are a fair number of us who both resist change, and find it stressful. So, with the potential pitfalls of change, we should be careful to bring change only when it is appropriate. By the same token, there is merit in periodically questioning why processes and procedures currently exist as they are. I do not believe the answer "that's the way it's always been done," is necessarily a reasonable reason to continue along some path.

Examples are all around us. I remember people at the turn of the century using cardboard "date wheels" to calculate deadlines. They resisted evolution to computer programs, but the resulting efficiency was worth the stress of change. The same could be said for electronic filing, electronic service, email, and more. I remember an attorney complaining that to e-file he would have to replace his secretary's typewriter with a computer. Change can challenge us, but change can absolutely be positive. The point is to make that change after thoughtful consideration and focus it upon a real and justifiable improvement. 

However, in the statutory context, "that's the way it's always been done," is even less persuasive. The situation described to me was a clear statutory mandate for the workers' compensation agency to compile certain data. The regulator I was speaking with expressed frustration with the non-compliance, but more so with the seemingly unanimous sentiment in support of ambivalently continuing non-compliance. There was an apparent feeling that complying with the statute was not important, and that if it were then someone outside the agency would be voicing the concern ("why fix it until someone else notices and complains"). 

The people elect representatives. Those representatives debate policy, formulate statutes, and therein allocate resources. Those legislative decisions are subject to the analysis of elected governors, who may endorse or veto such decisions. Once those decisions are made, however, they are law. Certainly, it may be that people might not understand those laws. However, it is the obligation of the regulators involved to strive to comply with those laws. 

Certainly, those decisions must be consistent with the broader legal constructs of this country, for example the guiding principles of both the federal and applicable state constitution. Statutory constructs must be consistent with other statutory enactments, to avoid confusion and chaos. Thus, there is yet another "check and balance," the courts, on the laws enacted by the people's elected representatives. Regulators must of course be conscious of those constraints in the performance of their duties and in their efforts to fulfill statutory obligations. But no such concerns or constraints were expressed here, merely, "that's the way we've always done it."

In this instance, a state law seemingly required certain compilation and reporting. The regulator was told simply "it says that, but we've never done that." And questions as to "why" or "why not" were replied to with platitudes. I was proud of this regulator who essentially concluded that it was worthwhile to explore the subject more carefully, more introspectively. Whether it is practical or even possible to perform the statutorily assigned task there remains to be seen. But, there is value in the examination, evaluation, and discussion. If it turns out they "cannot," that is a better answer than "we never tried."

Change for the sake of change likely helps no one. Rigid and unthinking resistance to change as likely helps no one. Conversely,  open discussion of change likely hurts no one. I was pleased to hear from this regulator, and impressed by the decision to meaningfully discuss what that state's lawmakers have sought, and the potentials for effectuating that. 

In the spirit of reporting, the Florida OJCC publishes an Annual Report. It is mandated by statute, with several specific categories of data required. The report contains those, and an assortment of others that hopefully provide a complete picture of the efforts and mission of the OJCC. Notably, there are questions that cannot currently be answered (with current resources), such as the volume of petitions filed by pro-se workers. That is a question the legislature has statutorily asked, but which our database cannot really answer today. The programming could be changed, but we have limited resources for change each year, and that one has not reached the top of the priority list. So, the OJCC answers the question in the best manner practical today and looks to improve that in the future. 

Over the next several Tuesdays, portions of the 2017 OJCC Annual Report will be featured in this blog. It is hoped that this information is of use to the Floridians which this Office serves. And, it is pertinent that we will continue to think, reevaluate, and openly discuss how we can do a better job, of delivering service, documenting data, and serving Florida. We are proud of our progress, but not complacent. The future will bring change, and we look forward to that with you.