Report 2000-111 Summary - November 2000

Department of Consumer Affairs:

Lengthy Delays and Poor Monitoring Weaken Consumer Protection

RESULTS IN BRIEF

The Department of Consumer Affairs (department) comprises 35 boards and bureaus responsible for regulating businesses and individuals who wish to practice certain professions that affect the health, safety, and welfare of California consumers. The department is responsible for overseeing the regulatory boards and bureaus to ensure that they carry out this mission. However, the department has not fulfilled its responsibility. It has diverted the resources of its internal audit office to other department projects, thereby allowing weaknesses within the boards and bureaus to go undetected. Additionally, the department's oversight efforts have relied heavily on information reported by the boards and bureaus themselves, such as strategic plans and regulations, annual statistical reports, and results from the Joint Legislative Sunset Review Committee process. This self-reported information should not be the department's exclusive source of assurance that the boards and bureaus are protecting consumers.

To assess how the boards and bureaus perform their duties, we reviewed in detail 4 boards and bureaus-the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education (BPPVE), the Dental Board of California (board), the Bureau of Automotive Repair (bureau), and the Contractors State License Board (CSLB)-and surveyed the remaining 31 boards and bureaus regarding the way they perform their duties. As a result of our review, we found that 2 of the 4 boards and bureaus have not been prompt in issuing and renewing professional and occupational licenses. The BPPVE, for example, takes an average of 525 days to process one class of license applications it receives. Similarly, 4 of the 31 boards and bureaus we surveyed reported that their processing times for issuing new licenses exceeded established goals and 14 reported they had set no goals for the prompt issuance of license renewals. Moreover, not all boards and bureaus are monitoring their licensing activities to ensure that applications are processed promptly.

We also found that all 4 of the boards and bureaus we reviewed do not always respond promptly to consumer complaints. In addition, 2 of the boards and bureaus do not monitor the progress of their regulatory staff in responding to each complaint, and 1 bureau-the BPPVE-in December 1999 temporarily discontinued investigating some complaints against the State's private postsecondary and vocational educational schools for a six-month period, including allegations of serious violations of law. Likewise, of the 31 regulatory boards and bureaus we surveyed, 17 reported that they had not established goals for the timely processing of complaints. These findings are startling, given that resolving complaints from consumers is central to the mission of any consumer protection agency.

Finally, the complaints that the department's regulatory boards and bureaus refer to the Attorney General's Office (AGO) as cases warranting severe discipline, such as license suspension or revocation, have taken too much time to process. Represented by the AGO, the boards and bureaus often bring these more serious complaints before an administrative law judge. Many of the cases have taken more than a year to resolve. Because the boards and bureaus and the AGO do not track all the activities associated with the progress of these cases, we were not able to determine why they take so long to be resolved.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To ensure that its boards and bureaus are providing prompt and complete consumer protection services, the department should take the following steps:

  • Establish a plan to review and evaluate the licensing and enforcement functions of its boards and bureaus.

  • Use the resources of its internal audit office or other monitoring unit to periodically review each board and bureau.

  • Ensure that each board and bureau establish policies, procedures, processing goals, and monitoring systems for processing licenses and complaints consistently, promptly, and effectively.
The BPPVE, the board, the bureau, and the CSLB should put systems in place to monitor their licensing and complaint processes and should use these systems to ensure that they promptly and effectively process license applications and complaints.

The department, along with its boards and bureaus, should assess whether the AGO's new management reporting system is successful in identifying the causes for delay in the processing of legal cases so they can be eliminated. If the AGO's system does not meet this goal, the department should petition the Legislature to consider alternatives to the current process requiring the involvement of the AGO. For example, on a test basis, a board or bureau could hire a legal firm-with the ability to represent a board or bureau throughout the State-to represent it in such cases. The results of the pilot, including costs, timeliness, and effectiveness, could then be compared to the current process to determine whether, as a whole, consumers were served more promptly.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The State and Consumer Services Agency and the department agreed with our findings and stated that the department and the boards and bureaus we reviewed are taking steps to correct the problems we identified. The AGO questioned the accuracy of some of our word choices. In addition, the AGO does not believe that we acknowledged its view of why legal cases take so long to resolve, which it feels is due to a shortage of staff.


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