Better, Faster, Cheaper

Boston’s Public-Transit Snow Job

Boston has endured over seven feet of snow in less than a month, and the most visible casualty has been the region's decrepit transit system. A closer look at the woes bedeviling the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) reveals a more-than-20-year guide to how not to run a transit system, and the lessons don't only apply to systems that have to contend with mountains of snow and extreme cold.

The MBTA's struggle with this winter's weather has become national news. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker's frustration grew as the system was unable to restore service after each storm, causing MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott to announce her resignation. She then said it would be 30 days before full commuter-rail and subway service could be restored -- if there were no more snow in the interim. READ MORE

Utah Applies Social Impact Bonds to Early Childhood Education

In 2009, President Obama announced the first social innovation fund (SIF), an initiative of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which I chaired at the time. SIFs provide a new way of thinking about how to fund government services: Instead of prescriptively asking nonprofits to respond to a bid, we would ask them to nominate an important social problem and describe how they would go about solving it. Over the years, the fund has invested more than a half-billion dollars to address social challenges.

Building on those successes, governments across the country have begun to utilize social impact bonds (SIBs) to solve complex problems with the help of private investors -- and to put those resources only into approaches that work. I recently spoke with Ben McAdams, mayor of Utah's Salt Lake County and champion of a pioneering SIB in the field of early childhood education. The Utah High Quality Preschool Program provides assistance to increase school readiness and academic performance among 3- and 4-year-olds to reduce the number of children who require costly special education and remedial services. READ MORE

Another Blow for Public-Employee Unions

By issuing an executive order this week ending the requirement that state employees who choose not to join a union pay fees to support their share of collective-bargaining costs, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is the latest elected official to thrust the politically charged debate over public-employee unions into the headlines. Rauner calls the fees a "critical cog in the corrupt bargain that is crushing taxpayers." If his order withstands the expected legal challenges, it would likely cripple Illinois' public-employee unions.

The issue the new Republican governor's order addresses comes down to balancing the First Amendment rights of employees not to support political activity they disapprove of against preventing "free-riders" from reaping benefits from collective-bargaining agreements toward which they didn't contribute. READ MORE

Harnessing Data to Fight Crime

Last year, police in Prince George's County, Md., found themselves faced with an alarming increase in armed robberies of commercial establishments. Their response proved just how successful the wise use of data and a willingness to set aggressive goals -- along with a healthy dollop of creativity -- can be in the fight against crime.

Police in the Washington, D.C., suburb went to work analyzing the crime spree, which at one point reached 52 more commercial armed robberies than had been committed by the same date in 2013. They looked at when and where the crimes occurred, and by last fall they were ready to implement a commercial robbery reduction plan known as "1828" -- so named because the operation would take place between Oct. 18 and Nov. 28, dates during which there had been a particularly high number of robberies the previous year. READ MORE

The Wrong Way to Keep Cops and Firefighters on the Job

The systems we live under vary from place to place, but no system can change the human impulse to shift problems to someone else. Yet another example of this comes from Dallas, where the Police and Fire Pension System has indefinitely suspended admission to its breathtakingly costly Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) beginning on April 1.

Like most public-safety DROPs, Dallas' version was designed as a recruitment tool and an incentive to keep experienced police officers and firefighters on the job. It allows officers and firefighters who have served for at least 20 years to collect a pension even as they continue to work. Instead of going into employees' pockets, however, the payments are deposited into separate accounts with guaranteed interest rates of 8-10 percent annually that are paid by the pension system. Police officers and firefighters can contribute to DROP for as long as they continue to work. READ MORE