If you had a smart Ph.D. student, ready to research any topic for you to help in your work, what would you want him or her to do? Our sense is that there's a regular flow of doctoral students in search of a terrific government-related topic about which to write their dissertation. This kind of intellectual power could be a resource to state and local government managers who have wishlists full of issues about which they'd like to see rigorous research. Any ideas?
In the "penny wise" department: After several years in which the Washington state Legislature has already been cutting back on funding for its well-respected auditor's office, it recently decided to cut another $8 million intended for performance audits and transfer the money to two other agencies (so it wasn't really a cut of total spending). According to state auditor Brian Sonntag, his performance audits have a return on investment of 10-to-1 for every recommendation that's adopted. This is just the most recent instance in which a state or city has cut back on provably worthwhile analytic capacity — just at a time when that's a commodity of great value.
Though the "long-term view" may be in short supply in cities and states, a study prepared for the U.S. Conference of Mayors shows that "despite challenging economic conditions, a landmark survey of nearly 400 mayors in all 50 states has found that energy and sustainability efforts have maintained momentum within cities."
According to the study, "mayors are looking to the economic benefits of these clean energy solutions as drivers of their energy strategies," which makes good sense to us. A few other findings:
"Three in four cities expect their use of clean energy technologies to increase over the next five years."
"LED/efficient lighting, low-energy building technologies and solar electricity generation are the top three 'most promising' technologies for reducing energy use and carbon emissions."
"One-quarter of all cities have already set targets for the use of renewable energy."
School cafeterias certainly don't feel like places that might be rife with serious misconduct (on the part of administrators as opposed to students playing catch with Jello). But according to Education Week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is conducting an investigation to find out the extent to which "food-service management companies running many school cafeterias are passing along all the discounts and rebates they receive from their suppliers to the districts that finance them."
This was triggered, in part, by problems with one of the companies running school cafeterias in New York state, which agreed "to pay $20 million to resolve allegations that it had over charged 21 school districts and the State University of New York system for some of the food provided to students."
Our thought: No need to wait for the USDA. If you're involved in running a school district, take a close look yourself.
Can you — do you — disagree with your boss? We asked B&G Readers that question a couple of weeks ago and have heard back from dozens of you, with more responses coming in every day. Fortunately, we weren't looking for some kind of consensus, because the comments reflected an incredibly wide spectrum of experience. We'll reflect on what the range of responses means in a special piece in a couple of weeks. But just to inspire your interest, here are two comments:
"I recently retired as deputy state auditor from our state auditor's office (legislative branch) after 18 years. In my entire career there, I felt fortunate because I was encouraged to give my opinion, and I encouraged my staff to do the same. We were paid to 'say what we thought.'"
"Does the statement 'Off with her head' sound familiar? Like a dream come true, I feel trapped in a Lewis Carroll adventure when it comes to disagreeing or even thinking about doing so with my supervisor."
A barometer of the strains on cities as a result of budgetary problems: The New York Times online just featured a "Room for Debate" segment in which the discussion topic is whether it's better to fire teachers or school librarians. While rational arguments are presented, in a better world, the question would never have to come up.
The IBM Center for the Business of Government (for which we write a column) has issued a report examining differences in the workforce generations. If you manage people, we recommend it strongly to you. Particularly fascinating is a chart about differences in communications preferences. For example, Baby boomers were the only folks who seemed to really like telephones.
In our ongoing search for people who work to make cities and states better — simply because it's the right thing to do — we've just come across an unexpected source of that kind of beneficence: Native American Tribes that have acquired cash resources from casinos. According to a piece by Charles Taylor in the NACo County News, "Native American tribes across the country are flexing their economic muscles as donors of government largesse, not recipients." For example, Taylor writes, "In Washington state, tribes like the Stillaguamish have focused much of their giving on police and public safety agencies ... [the] tribe has purchased thermal imaging cameras, a hovercraft, a rescue boat and a new Jaws of Life for police or fire departments."
Joseph Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, is quoted in the piece as saying, "It's not a cynical thing on the part of the tribe of 'let's just get some good public relations out of this;' rather, I think tribes are quite sincere in wanting to be good neighbors."
Five or six years ago, we were insisting that increasing revenues from casinos (like those that have provided cash to the Native American tribes mentioned in the previous item) weren't a sensible approach to balancing state finances. We called them "rickety bridges to the future."
Now, according to a new report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government, it appears that states "saw a 2 percent gain in revenues from lotteries, casinos, racinos and pari-mutuel wagering during [fiscal year 2010] compared to 2009." This followed a year in which there was a dip.
According to Rockefeller, though receipts from legally sanctioned gambling represent a relatively small portion of overall state revenues, "such collections have provided a 'remarkably consistent' 2.1 percent to 2.5 percent of own-source revenues between 1998 and 2009." In these tough times, that's pretty impressive.
So, were we plain wrong? In the short-term, clearly we were. But we continue to be dubious — as, apparently, are the authors of the study, who conclude that "gambling legalization and expansion during tough times produce significant short-term revenue increases in some jurisdictions. But if experience is a guide, such growth will not continue over time."
A belated Happy Fourth of July! In honor of the nation's birthday, we offer the following: "Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better." — Albert Camus