Cost-Savings of Telecommuting, the Perils of Part-Timers, and a Council Meeting Erupts

Plus: The soothing power of shelter dogs, and more management news
by | October 20, 2011

Is your government entity encouraging telecommuting? It might be an idea worth considering. According to a press release from the state of Florida, "The Florida Department of Children and Families will save $1.3 million by training employees to telecommute and reducing leased office space."

Last fiscal year, for example, the department closed offices in five cities, and it plans on doing the same with four others this year. Right now about four in 10 employees who handle public benefits are telecommuting, with a goal of reaching 75 percent. Assuming that there's no decline in quality of service, this all seems like a good idea. But we can certainly see some downsides to telecommuting, which may or may not have come up in Florida. Send us an email and tell us what you think, please.


States are "firing public employees and replacing them with part-timers at an increased rate," according to census data published by CivSource, a website dedicated to publishing news about state and local politics, management and business.

Not only are part-timers a way to get work done in the midst of a sea of layoffs, they're rarely eligible for pensions and other benefits, which makes them far cheaper by the hour. According to CivSource, part-time employment in state and local government is up over 4 percent nationally.

This, of course, is hardly a panacea. In fact, it may sometimes be just the opposite. Part-timers have higher rates of turnover, which means there's a great deal of wasted training time, or insufficient training altogether. Also, we have to wonder whether folks who really have the skills to perform at a high level are the same people who are inclined to be in the position to take a part-time job. Finally, it seems to us that part-timers — or at least a portion of them — are far less likely to develop the kind of dedication to a mission than are people who consider themselves fully part of the team. We can understand the attraction of part-time help — desperate times call for desperate measures — but it seems important to take the potential downsides into account.


Public Civility Corner: When budget pressures led political leaders in Mount Sterling, Ohio, to disband the community's police department, it shouldn't have been a surprise that citizens would be angry. But this YouTube video of a village council session is one of the most extreme examples we've seen of a public meeting careening out of control, including a councilmember banging her shoe on a table and the mayor resigning. Take a look. (By the way, the mayor took his job back a few days later.)


Balancing the scorecard a bit from the wild scene in Mount Sterling that we've just described, we thought it worthwhile to point to a remarkably humane way to start meetings in Maricopa County, Ariz. There, every board of supervisors meeting now begins by showcasing a dog from one of the county's two shelters, according to the Arizona Republic. That's got to soften up even ornery attendees, at least a little. What's more, the dogs are apparently adopted very quickly. So, a good deal for man and beast.


Regular B&G correspondent Tom Sadowski, retired director of accounting for the state of Missouri and the University of Missouri, agreed with our complaints a couple weeks back about the confusion regarding the real meaning of the words in that terrible troika, "waste, fraud and abuse." He emailed us to add an interesting wrinkle: "Think about this — while there may be frauds that go undetected, many of the ones reported are relatively not that numerous or that large. It is like crime. If you hear too many reports of crime you tend to overestimate their frequency and severity. What you rarely, if ever, get is an overall sense of how good or bad things really are."


When we asked readers about the value of Facebook, we couldn't have anticipated the variety of response we received. At one extreme, some B&G readers indicated that they thought their government entity could barely survive without the social networking site. At the other extreme was a one-word email from a Baltimore employee, which read, simply: "Useless."

There was some consensus about the potential value of Facebook during natural disasters (at least among the correspondents who brought up that point). One email addressed Norfolk, Va.'s recent experience with Hurricane Irene. "Our newly launched Facebook page was a magnet for residents," the comment read, "particularly young military spouses and other newcomers unfamiliar with hurricanes or the likely impact. Norfolk residents flocked to Facebook where we immediately were able both to answer specific questions and to post the latest information from our Emergency Operations Center, where it was accessible to all. Soon, residents were sharing helpful information among themselves and the media was citing Norfolk's Facebook page as its source for breaking news."


What kind of impact on public-sector employees does the current lack of job security create? We came across a study published in 2007 in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology that helps provide some idea. Apparently, productivity increased when people feared they might lose their job. But creative problem-solving decreased. Seems to us like good managers can intervene to try to alleviate the second, negative result if they perceive that it's present in their organization.


The variation in the way states are run is a good thing, we think. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously pointed out long ago, that's what makes them "laboratories of democracy." But in some instances, a nationwide set of minimum standards seems to be called for. We'd argue that one such issue relates to coroners' offices. The qualifications to become a coroner are established by individual states and range wildly from one state to the next. For lots of places, there's no need for training, despite the fact that the position can be a critical one. Some coroners are elected. Some are appointed.

Things can easily get confused when you throw in the job of "medical examiner." Though this latter group may be more likely to have training, the two terms can mean very different things depending on the state.

All this is important because, in many states, coroners are responsible for determining cause of death in the cases they face, which can be critical information for criminal investigations, as well as public health generally. This is why folks in Arkansas are concerned about the rising number of cremations in that state. Arkansas coroners need only be 18 years old, and they aren't required to undergo any training. When someone is buried, and there appears to be the possibility that a coroner has made a mistake, there's a bit of a second chance to get it right. But when the body is cremated, well ....


"In bureaucracies many people have the authority to say no, not the authority to say yes."

— John Sculley, former Apple CEO.


In a world where some state and local policy is driven by pollsters who tell policymakers what people want, it's worthwhile to consider how easy it is to come up with vastly different survey results depending on how you phrase a given question.

The Sacramento Bee's CapitolAlert blog, which covers California politics and government, recently cited a wonderful example. The broad question was whether the state should have legislation that schedules all ballot measures during the November election. Here's how the question was posed in one survey: "Do you favor or oppose changing election laws so that statewide initiatives can only be placed before voters in a November general election instead of a primary election?" Some 56 percent of respondents said they favored the proposition.

But asked another way, nearly 60 percent of people opposed the governor signing the same exact bill. In this instance, here's how the question was phrased: "In 2009, the Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature reached a bipartisan agreement to balance the state budget in which the Republicans agreed to support significant increases to the state's income, sales and car taxes and the Democrats agreed to put before voters in June of 2012 an initiative limiting state spending increases and increasing the state's rainy day fund. On the last day of the current legislative session, however, the state legislature passed a union-backed bill that would delay the public vote on the initiative until November of 2014. Do you believe Governor Jerry Brown should sign this bill delaying the initiative or veto the bill and allow voters to consider the initiative next June?"

The results aren't surprising given the phrasing of the second question. But when the news of these kinds of surveys is conveyed to legislators or the general citizenry, how often are the questions actually included? Generally, it's just the results that get reported.

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