Getting Citizens to Care, Fixing Civics Education, And How Government is Like a Hockey Puck

Plus: The cost of rules, how bikes saves lives, and more management news.
by | November 4, 2010

Citizen interest in performance measures was a topic that kept coming up in a recent Association of Government Accountants conference in Baltimore at which we spoke. Folks seemed to repeatedly bemoan the idea that they just don't seem able to get citizens to care much about measures, however useful the measures might seem. Complicating matters, a few attendees told us they thought that there was a distinct possibility that citizen interest per se didn't have much value altogether.

For what it's worth, here's our thought: We believe that persuading taxpayers to look at performance measures is only a first step. The value gets added when elected officials know that voters are looking at this stuff. That, in our mind, may be the best way to cement the measures' use from administration to administration. Also, we continue to hold out hope that the more citizens see what their government is actually achieving, the more the "trust gap" will dissipate.


Civics education is a hot topic in our house, as regular readers of the B&G Report know. Among other things, we think it's unlikely that people can have much faith that government does anything worthwhile if they have little idea of how it works (or how well it works — see the item above). So we were disappointed to read a piece by Anne O'Brien, acting executive director of the Learning First Alliance, that fulfilled our negative suspicions. She writes, "I have concerns about the state of civics education in America," and she cites some statistics about proficiency from the National Assessment of Educational Progress: "[J]ust about 24 percent of students are considered proficient (24 percent of fourth graders, 22 percent of eighth graders, and 27 percent of twelfth graders). These students will become voters who have to make important decisions every election — but only about 24 percent have a proficient understanding of civics? It's a bit scary."

What are we going to do about this?


Watching state and local governments adapting to a prolonged time in budget hell, it would seem like the need for long-term planning is substantial. On that topic, here's a quote from hockey great Wayne Gretzky: "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."


When do government rules cost more than they deliver in benefits? We asked that question a couple of weeks ago, and got a number of interesting — if stomach-churning — responses. We wanted to share the following with you at nearly its full length, because it seemed like a mixture of Woody Allen and Franz Kafka. It was submitted by Robert Schilling, managing director of the Human Capital Network. Schilling had worked for government for over 25 years, including stints at New York City's JFK Airport and Mass Transit Authority:

"At a public agency where I worked some years ago, a number of senior executives were caught padding their expense accounts, in one case to aid the support of a mistress. A clamor ensued. There were calls for draconian punishments. The more prominent of the offenders was forced from his job, and several others were fined and publicly humiliated. But the real damage was that our expense policies were 'tightened.'

"All expenses had to be documented, no matter how trivial. Employees who flew were required not only to provide the airline tickets, but the boarding passes as well. That was because some of the executives who were entitled to fly first class had been cashing tickets (remember the mistress?) and buying two-for-one plus cab fare. The rule, however, was applied to the rest of the working stiffs whose biggest trip was an Amtrak ticket to Washington (yes, that too — after all, if you were entitled to Business Class you might cash in your ticket and go coach.) This also applied to cab fare receipts. The only exception was subway tokens — and they changed that once the MTA went to a system that provided receipts. Imagine if you will the endless hours spent auditing all of these scraps of paper, and the lengthy memos — there were several — rejecting expense claims for minor errors.

"And of course, the effort was completely wasteful. People making middle class salaries spent their working days identifying failures to include the boarding pass on leg three of a 3-day, four-city trip. Stentorian warnings were issued for failure to attach receipts in chronological order. And so on. Of course, the departments with significant expense accounts quickly detailed junior staff members to specialize in expense report preparation and clearance, further expanding the non-operational portion of the staff. And all this, because three or four people cheated on their expenses, got caught, and caused the agency a month or two of embarrassment."


Things aren't always what they seem. What do you think happens when there are more bicyclists on the road? Probably more accidents involving bicycles, right? That's what we might have guessed. But according to a post on the Seattle Transit Blog, it turns out that when bicycling rates go up, the number of accidents doesn't change, which means that the number of accidents-per-trip actually goes down.

The reason is pretty obvious when you think about it. As the blog post stated, "The more cyclists a city has, the more drivers expect cyclists, and drive accordingly. Similarly, as bicycling rates increase, drivers are more likely to be cyclists themselves, causing further behavioral changes that improve the safety of bicycles."

This is an important story for government managers to keep in mind. Careful analysis of data can lead to all kinds of counterintuitive conclusions — and those can lead to better policy.


A prediction we've made before and are making again: Governments that are increasingly dependent on fees to balance their budgets are going to be under a huge amount of pressure in 2011. And we'll bet you'll get sick of hearing the story about a Tennessee man whose house was allowed to burn down in early October because he hadn't paid the $75 annual fire fee. In a nation in which even the uninsured aren't supposed to go die in the streets, it seems unlikely to us that public-safety related fees are going to avoid close scrutiny.


Speaking of Tennessee finances, we were asked once, long ago, to talk to a tax reform commission in the Volunteer State. At the time, a great many people in the state were concerned about how to manage the need for better education for its young people. We suggested that Tennessee might well consider levying a personal income tax. We might as well have suggested that Tennesseans raise money by selling every first-born male.

And just this week, Washington state voters rejected an income tax on the state's wealthiest residents. With that in mind, we were intrigued by a strong piece by Governing's Jonathan Walters, on the politics of personal income taxes, and we wanted to bring it to your attention.


Feeling jolly? Well, here's a statistic to depress you (we like to think we're an all-purpose e-newsletter): According to a survey conducted by MeriTalk, a government IT information hub, government workers lose one hour a day searching for information that their agencies already own. (Thanks to @OhMyGov! for tweeting this item).


Grading on a curve: B&G Report readers commented recently on whether performance measures used to rate cleanliness in restaurants (often on an A-F scale) should be measured against absolute standards or altered as progress is made. The responses were thoughtful, and made a number of different points. We thought we'd excerpt one, from a very articulate former police chief in Arizona, that made the case very cogently:

"If the standards result in most food service establishments getting an 'A' with only rare food borne illness traced to one of those establishments, for something under the establishment's control -- then great! Better yet, if EVERY single one of them gets an 'A' with no increase in food borne illness -- HALLELUJIA!!!

"As for costs, to the government agency (ultimately the taxpayers) and to the food service establishments (ultimately the customers), if it's working reasonably well, let's avoid additional, costly, marginally effective measures...

"So, some things are just 'good enough' because they get the job done in a reasonable manner (acceptable results) at a cost we can afford."


Civil Discourse Corner: Mostly we focus on the negatives in this regular feature. But this time, we can report a very positive development. As we continue to explore Twitter (you can read our tweets on @Greenebarrett, if you'd like to follow us), we've come across some mayors who put out messages regularly.

We don't know how frequently they personally write their own 140 character missives, but in at least some cases they sure seem to. In fact, it's surprising how often the messages we're reading are inspiring, not just informational. We took note that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has just joined the ranks. And we've been impressed (in a hugely unscientific sampling of relatively few mayors) by the mayor of Newark, N.J.; mayor of Danbury, Ct. and governor of New Jersey. We even sent a direct query to the Danbury mayor (about the hat industry for which his community was famous), and got a response back within 20 minutes.

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