Obstinate Outliers, GPS Trackers and Insufficient Audits

Plus: Recommended reading, short-term thinking and more management news
by | January 6, 2011
 

The amount of personal income taxes collected in the country from April to June of 2010 went up 1.6 percent over the previous year, according to the Rockefeller Institute. Pretty good, no? But if you take California out of the equation, and only look at the other 49 states, there was actually a 0.3 percent decline nationally. The reason: California was working off an incredibly low base.

This has made us start questioning much of the national data that we see about states and cities. How many are thrown off by one or two extreme outliers? We'll bet there are lots of examples, and we're hoping that B&G readers like you might be able to help us to gather some. Are there any ways in which your state or city throws off aggregated data? Are you aware of any others, aside from California, that do? We await your e-mails.


Is it reasonable to use GPS systems in public sector employees' vehicles to check up on their whereabouts, or is that kind of activity inclined to create a whole cadre of frustrated public servants who don't feel trusted? We asked that question a few weeks ago, and have been getting interesting answers. We'll publish a short summary of the thoughts readers shared with us in a couple of weeks. But just to whet your appetite, here's one comment we received from a major in a midsized sheriff's office (about 600 employees):

"The simple fact of the matter is I am too busy worrying about my own assigned issues and problems to spend time checking to see if someone goes to lunch off their beat. Would I use GPS to check to see if someone was speeding recklessly after an accident? Yes. I might use it for a professional standards investigation of someone supposedly working an outside job while on county time. But if the employee is out there every day trying to do what is right, again I do not have the time or the inclination to bother with this kind of crap. Most supervisors are that way. They are too busy with their own problems to start a bunch of mess. Are there supervisors at my agency who would? Yes. But they get pegged fairly quickly by management and there is a tendency to move them to rubber gun jobs."


Lots of people and organizations rely on audits to stay abreast of fiscal problems in cities and states, and to get a sense of confidence that government entities' reporting of important financial information is on the level — no matter whether it's positive or negative.

That's why an excellent November Los Angeles Times piece made us feel a bit discombobulated. According to the newspaper's close look at state and local records, a number of public agency audits in California are insufficient: "Many cities that have been troubled by public corruption or mismanagement during the last decade — including San Diego, Compton and South Gate — got clean audits, even in cases in which public officials were later sent to prison."

What's more, according to the article, "Firms that deliver negative audits risk being replaced. Cities pay the auditors, and some officials have responded to negative findings by hiring new auditors. In at least one case, the new auditors gave Victorville a clean rating after the previous auditor found a raft of problems."

Don't misunderstand. We know there are lots of problems that are beyond the scope of an auditor's work. And we also continue to have faith in the strong work of the majority of the nation's governmental auditors. But this L.A. Times piece does give us pause.


Manager's Reading List. The recommendation this month is from Richard Tracy, senior fellow at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government. He suggests Eric Pooley's book, The Climate Wars: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth. Says Tracy: "It is about the best book I have read about how American politics currently works. While it provides a very clear explanation of the climate warming issue, it is more valuable as an insider account on how important issues are promoted, discussed, legislated, criticized, and messaged by powerful special interests on both sides of an issue. I was a little depressed by the final outcome of the current battle but learned a great deal about how our country makes/doesn't make policy decisions."


Short-term thinking in a long-term world. We don't feel good about criticizing states like California or Illinois for virtually any measure they take to pay their bills in this time of unimaginable shortfalls. Still, we can't help but worry as we see repeated instances in which the approach used virtually guarantees tough times in the future. Take, for example, the sale of 11 state properties by California, a proposition that has been the subject of ongoing debate in the California courts.

The deal could bring in about $1.3 billion — not an insignificant sum of money, even for California. But the states nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has called it "poor fiscal policy." Turns out that, according to the LAO, when the state sells the buildings and leases them back, it will wind up paying over 10 percent interest on the cash. We kind of wish we had $1.3 billion in our bank account. We'd be happy to make the same deal with the state at a mere 9 percent return.


We've fretted in the B&G Report about the potential ramifications of a world in which new technologies allow workers — including state and local government employees — to work around the clock. So here comes the latest alarming news on that front: According to a survey done by Xobni and Harris Interactive before the Thanksgiving holidays, nearly six out of 10 working adults in the U.S. planned on reviewing their work e-mail over Thanksgiving — and through Christmas and New Year's. We have to acknowledge that, although we think this is the road to burnout for many, there may be a silver lining. According to the survey, about one out of six in the survey indicated that they appreciated the distraction of work during these joyous days with extended family.


An incisive quote from a new governor: "Cutting is popular in the abstract. Cutting services is unpopular." — Governor-elect Dan Malloy of Connecticut


And another quote we really liked: "Most people love the idea of benchmarking so long as it isn't about them." — Doug MacDonald, former director of transportation for the Washington State Department of Transportation


Is the glass 71 percent full or 29 percent empty? According to a mid-December survey released by New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, some 71 percent of subway passengers said they were satisfied or very satisfied with service in the subways and buses. At the same time, 62 percent of bus riders were similarly pleased. The Daily News saw this a good thing, featuring a headline that read: "Surprise: MTA survey of straphangers says most are happy with service." But we can't help but sympathize with the point of view expressed by a new MTA board member, who fretted about riders who weren't satisfied.

This same issue comes up all the time in citizen satisfaction surveys. The results can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. Politicians' approval ratings have always bothered us a bit for this reason. A 70 percent approval rating for any elected official is considered pretty darn good. But shouldn't it bother people if almost a third of the population doesn't approve of the mayor, governor or whomever?


You might have thought the bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses had suddenly turned around and retreated. After all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in mid-December that its new calculations about food-borne illnesses had cut their number by a huge portion. The 1999 information that public health officials have been using put the number of cases at 76 million, with 5,000 deaths. The new info calculates the number of cases at 48 million, with only 3,000 deaths.

Sadly, there hasn't really been any dramatic progress in attacking food-borne disease. No, the CDC has just modified its method for calculating the numbers, and believes the new ones are more accurate. Nothing wrong with that. But the change does give us pause. We keep insisting that governments base their important decisions on good data. But if as reputable a source as the CDC can be off by so much — on such a significant issue — who's to know when data is good?

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