Dashboard Confessionals, Eliminating Duplicative Services, and Henry Ford on Innovation

Plus: Watching California's Jerry Brown, and more management news
by | February 17, 2011

Dashboards have been the hot game in town for many states and cities, as a way to communicate with stakeholders. We'd like to be able to write, in an informed way, about dashboards. So we're asking for two things from B&G readers who have an interest in this topic: 1) Would you please tell us what you think about the utility and quality of dashboards you've seen in your entity and others? And, 2) If you have the time, could you look at the new dashboard that Michigan has just put online? State leaders there are asking for input on their new information site, and based on our knowledge about that state, we believe they're entirely sincere. So we'd love to be able to help them out by passing along any information you send to us about their dashboard.


It's not just a question of how services are provided, but who is providing them, explains a new report from Deloitte. The well-done report, titled Letting Go of the Status Quo, includes a lot of worthwhile material. For example, one section looks at states in which certain services may be inefficient, thanks to the fact that they're provided on parallel paths by scores of individual entities.

As the authors write, "Consider a place like New Jersey, which has some of the highest property taxes in the country thanks in part to 567 municipalities — a third of them with fewer than 5,000 recipients — along with 611 school districts and 486 local authorities and special districts. Bergen County alone has 70 school districts and 76 superintendents."

Though the report encourages entities to try to find opportunities to eliminate duplication, it also acknowledges that "merging and eliminating even the smallest units of government has proven politically daunting wherever it has been tried."


A cool quote that nicely fits into conversations about innovation in government: "If I'd given people what they wanted, I'd have built a faster horse carriage." — Henry Ford


Governor Jerry Brown's California is a fascinating place to watch. It will be some time before it becomes clear how many of his budgetary measures are genuinely effective. But here's one that makes such good sense to us that we thought we'd point it out. The governor is attempting to eliminate tax breaks that are provided through California's Enterprise Zone Program and other geographically-targeted programs. The state's Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended this move for years. Just last week, the California Budget Project pointed out that "the best available independent research finds that the state's EZ Program fails to create jobs or new businesses — key goals of the program. Yet EZ tax breaks have cost the state $3.6 billion since the program's inception, primarily benefitting less than half of 1 percent of the state's corporations — those with assets of $1 billion or more."


We sincerely fear that we may just be a bit obtuse, but here's a question to which the answer eludes us, as well as a number of smart government folks we've asked. Bond ratings are supposed to tell us about the likelihood of a city or state being unable to repay its obligations. Forget for the moment about school districts, cities, authorities and so on. Limit your thinking to just the 50 states. Does anyone (who has any real understanding of the way states work) think there's a remote possibility that any of them will really default? And if not, who needs bond ratings? And why shouldn't we all be investing in California with its low ratings and commensurately high returns?


Red-light cameras have been covered in a couple of previous B&G Reports. In the interest of keeping readers up to speed, we thought it was only right to pass along a thoroughly self-assured editorial on the topic from the Washington Post. On February 5, the Post stated: "The evidence is incontrovertible that red-light cameras save lives and could save many more if they were in wider use. They do so mainly by deterring and reducing the number of side-impact accidents, known as T-bone crashes. The rancorous, misguided debate over the cameras, which capture images of vehicles as they run through red traffic lights, is now settled."

The editorial cites a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which stated that "in 14 big cities where the cameras were in use, including the District, the rate of fatalities stemming from red-light crashes fell three times faster than in 48 cities that did not install the cameras."


Commissions designed to streamline government often fall short of expectations. But we remain optimistic. So we were intrigued when we heard a couple weeks ago that Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley had signed an executive order creating the Alabama Commission on Improving State Government. Actually, it wasn't so much the creation of a new commission that got our attention; it was the language in an accompanying press release from the governor's office. After evaluating the effectiveness and need of current spending, it says, "Duplicated, outdated, unnecessary and ineffective services will be eliminated and funds used for that service will be re-directed and spent on more essential functions of state government."

The preliminary report of recommendations by the commission is due on June 1. We'll keep track of what happens after that. And we'll let you know.


There are some societal problems that can be addressed, at least in part, with information campaigns. One of these is the effort to cut down on the deaths and costs resulting from hospital-acquired infections (or HIAs, which we've written about in the past). Guidance for avoiding HIAs is often delivered in lectures, brochures and so on. But the Philadelphia area's Jefferson University Hospital is trying a more novel approach — a music video starring its staff.

We don't know how effective this will be in the long term, but we'll bet it's more successful than jamming a bunch of staffers into a lecture hall — especially since so many of the staffers were involved in actually creating the video. (By the way, don't watch this more than a couple of times, or you'll find the tune inescapable.)


When President Obama announced his program to fix the nation's failing schools back in 2009, one central tenet was to get rid of ineffective principals, replacing them with men and women who were geared up to make massive turnarounds. But now, along comes The New York Times, which informs us that one such "policy decision ... ran into a difficult reality: There simply were not enough qualified principals-in-waiting to take over." Nothing's ever as easy as it looks.


Here's one more reason that across-the-board cuts can be problematic. A good many states have grappled with their budgetary strains by cutting back on funding for school districts, frequently in an across-the-board fashion. But, as David Sciarro, the executive director of the Education Law Center, is quoted as saying in an article in Education Week, this creates a disproportionate burden on the poorer districts. "Impoverished districts have little property-tax wealth to draw from," says the EdWeek article, "and so state aid is a lifeline."

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