Stressed on the Job, Go-to Sources for Econ, and the Danger of Pretty Data

Plus: Emphasizing the individual, and more management news
by | August 18, 2011
 

Feeling stressed? Nearly two years ago, we wrote a column for Governing in which we suggested that the twin threats of layoffs and furloughs were undoubtedly leaving more and more government workers in a state of perpetual concern — and that, we speculated, would undoubtedly affect their work. It seemed to us that it's hard enough performing demanding tasks. It's harder still when co-workers are disappearing, leaving your load growing. It's hardest of all when you think your own job is at risk.

We thought this was a topic worth bringing up again after seeing a recent CareerBuilder survey indicating that 43 percent of workers generally think their stress level has increased in the past six months, and 46 percent think their workload has increased.

So what's your story, B&G readers? Do you feel more stress at work than you have in the past? If so, how has that affected your capacity to do your job well?

E-mail us with your thoughts.


When we first came across a great list of frequently needed data sources on the Calculated Risk blog, we filed it away for our future reference. Then it occurred to us that the list itself might also be of great use to B&G readers who like to get economic data information directly from the source. Take a look for yourself on the Calculated Risk blog.


The quality of data can easily be misrepresented when the information is shown on glowing computer screens with fancy colors and lots of neat little buttons to push. Just a few weeks ago, we answered a survey instrument from one of the major state-level membership organizations. After taking the survey, we were brought to a page where we found a bar chart reflecting other respondents' comments. A neat little device, no? We sure were pleased to see that our thoughts were reflected in other people's thinking. But on further inspection, it turned out that we were only the fifth person to answer the survey.


As states, cities and counties find themselves increasingly required to sell the case for more tax dollars, we've come across a study we think is enormously instructive. It was done by professor Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon. In short, the people surveyed were given money to take part in a quiz. On the way out, they were given an unrelated opportunity to contribute up to five dollars to Save the Children.

But the donation was explained to them in three distinct ways:

1) They could give money to help "Rokia," a 7-year-old girl in Mali (of whom the respondents were shown a photo);

2) They could contribute to the unnamed hundreds of thousands of children in eastern Africa; or

3) They could help Rokia specifically, but in addtion to that request the respondents were given all kinds of information about the many similarly desperate children in eastern Africa.

As it worked out, the average donation to the individual little girl was $2.25. For the unnamed masses, donations averaged $1.15. And for the little girl put into context of the masses, the number was $1.40.

The point for cities and states is this: The more governments can relate additional tax dollars to real people — not to anonymous government needs — the better off they might be. (Hat tip to the Big Think blog for bringing this study to our attention.)


Related to the previous item, here's a wise quote: "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

— Mother Teresa


Do you have trouble getting people to keep appointments? A recent post on the Farnham Street blog provides a couple of ideas that seemed potentially useful to managers in state, city and county governments:

"One approach requires people to repeat back the time and date of their appointment when they call. In face-to-face settings [provide] blank appointment cards and ask [appointment-makers] to write the time and date down for themselves."

"These two cost-free and simple changes have been yielding impressive results, reducing the number of wasted appointments by 18 percent. And when a message indicating that the majority of people do attend their appointment on time is added (compared to the usual practice of highlighting the number of those who don't), no-shows fall by 31 percent."


We love technology, despite our frequent B&G Report items complaining about it. Many years ago, we were the first people we knew to own a home PC, and we currently have a computer-to-us ratio of about three to one! That said, we wanted to draw attention to the risks of over-relying on technology before the kinks have been worked out.

A recent study conducted by Sam Houston State University and published in the Journal of Criminal Justice took a close look at GPS monitoring of sex offenders in Arizona. The notion was that with GPS, authorities could quickly and easily identify instances in which offenders violated geographic restrictions. The problem? According to the study, "While it is expected that GPS technology provides the capability for near real-time tracking of an offender's location and movement in the community and that alerts would primarily indicate non-compliance with geographical and temporal restrictions, findings demonstrated that the responses to non-violation alerts consumed an inordinate amount of an agency's resources that could be better directed to other case management activities."


The use of procurement cards, which allow government employees to make purchases with funds from specific city, state or federal bank accounts, has spread wildly. According to a recent report by Emily Miller, Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator for Chicago's Better Government Association, "Nationwide, p-card spending jumped to $17.7 billion in 2006, compared with only $3 billion in 1996, according to the latest data."

The concept itself is intuitively sensible. But managed improperly, p-cards can leave a government exposed to accusations of waste and fraud. That, in turn, calls for rigorous oversight. Miller suggested some ways to avoid running into troubles with p-cards in an op-ed piece that ran in the suburban Chicago Daily Herald. Some of her suggestions are basic common sense; taken as a whole, they form a very nice checklist for governments that have p-card programs.


Performance contracts, which are aimed at ensuring that cities, counties and states get the most out of outside contractors, have always seemed like a good idea to us. But, as is almost always the case, the devil is in the details. The Washington state Auditor's Office recently came out with a report identifying "several effective approaches to address commonly cited challenges" in performance contracts. Here they are:

  • Recognize that performance-based contracting is not a one-size-fits-all solution, especially when agencies must closely oversee contractors' work processes or meet strict federal requirements.
  • Use risk assessments to inform contract development and to set priorities for monitoring.
  • Use standard terms and templates when possible.
  • Ensure that performance and outcome measures are relevant, attainable and practical.
  • [Engage in] active monitoring, including performance improvement plans whose performance is sub-par.

Our long-standing interest in civics education made us the perfect audience for an online game created by the National Association of Counties and iCivics, the government-education group started by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. It's called Counties Work, and it's intended to help educate young people from grades 6 to 12 about county government by letting them run their own county online. What's more, a curriculum has also been developed to assist teachers who want to prepare lessons about county government. Take a look, and we'll bet you'll be intrigued.

Meanwhile, we continue to believe in this truism that we coined a couple of decades ago: People cannot trust government if they don't understand it.

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