Gov. Ned Lamont Cloe Poisson /

Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration will take a key step next month to prepare state agencies for the potential retirement of thousands of employees within the next two years.

The administration will hire a consultant to help departments better utilize technology, create other efficiencies and otherwise improve delivery of services — all with smaller staff.

“There’s an enormous opportunity here,” said Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer. “Our agencies largely operate in silos, and as a result of that we sometimes provide very fragmented services to people.”

That opportunity stems, in part, from a 2017 concessions deal struck between state employee unions and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

That agreement tightens retirement benefits in several areas — including caps on pension adjustments and increased medical costs — for workers who leave service after June 30, 2022.

Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo, whose office first warned of a mass exodus had estimated last year that nearly 14,800 workers would be eligible for retirement by mid-2022. About 2,220 of those employees have since retired, but Lembo says 12,540 — roughly 25% of the workforce — still would be able to eligible two years from now.

That doesn’t mean state officials expect all of those potential retirees to step down in mid-2022. But most agree it does mean state operations are in for a substantial change.

“We’re talking about a loss of talent, a loss of experience,” the comptroller said. “Some of that can be healthy, if it’s handled correctly.”

When veteran workers retire, “we lose the opportunity to groom the next group of people,” Lembo added.  “Each one of these jobs has to be looked at very closely.”

Lamont has insisted since before he took office in 2019, that this “silver tsunami” presents an opportunity not only to save money, but also to improve delivery of services.

The governor inherited a network of agencies that often relies on fragmented and outdated information technology systems.

For example, when the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, the Department of Labor’s computer network — which relied largely on a COBOL programming language that dates back to the 1980s — was swamped by hundreds of thousands of applications for benefits. The agency had to redirect staff to prepare emergency programming modifications to correct the backlog.

Investments in technology can do more than allow agencies to operate more efficiently with fewer staffers,  Geballe said. This venture also should enhance government’s ability to collect data and anticipate challenges before they arrive.

For example, recipients of state-sponsored social and health care services routinely communicate with multiple state agencies. With better information sharing, agencies not only could avoid duplicative efforts, but also coordinate and improve services, Geballe said.

Lamont’s budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw, recently urged all department heads to be efficient with staffing as they prepare their requests for the next two-year state budget. The governor must propose that biennial plan to the General Assembly in February.

“Agencies are therefore strongly encouraged to be creative in considering alternative service delivery models, updates to your practices and procedures, cross-agency collaborations, and other new ways to do business,” McCaw wrote.

But the leader of the largest state employee union said Thursday that the administration’s venture is inherently flawed.

“It is disappointing and rather perplexing that in an effort to save money the state would needlessly spend money,” said Jody Barr, executive director of Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “Once again, the state ends up hiring outside consultants rather than partnering with workers to find savings and plan for the future.”

Barr said the coronavirus pandemic has reminded Connecticut that “government is not a business and thus cannot be run as one.”

Many state agencies were able to maintain critical services specifically because they employed sufficient staff who adapted quickly to find solutions to new challenges, Barr added. “Connecticut was able to rely on its strong and resilient workforce that’s connected to the communities they serve.”

But Geballe added that while the wave of retirements should arrive in two years, the evolution of state agencies will take longer than that, giving officials ample time to make adjustments if problems develop.

“The plan is to embrace technology and really change how we operate state government,” he added. “That’s going to take a significant amount of time.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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