The Election's Over: Time to Start Worrying

Plus: The decline of the citizen survey, using the Web to change attitudes about government, and more
by | November 6, 2008
 

Whether or not you're personally happy with the election results, we're pretty sure there's ample reason for state, county and local employees to be more than a bit jittery. Although a number of entities have made budget cuts, we're sure that many others are still in the finger-in-the-dike mode. Election time is simply not the best time to make loads of people unhappy. Well, Election Day is over now. Watch out.


Under the "too much of a good thing" category, consider surveys. A few days back, we were chatting with the Urban Institute's Harry Hatry, and he mentioned that it was becoming increasingly difficult to get anyone to fill out any kind of a survey.

Then we came across this item in the Arizona Republic: "The Arizona Business Conditions Index, an Arizona State University indicator that has been around for about 45 years, has been quietly stopped because it wasn't getting enough responses to ensure its accuracy."

This is really kind of sad. Surveys have long been one of the best ways for governments and academics to understand what was going on with citizens, employees, business leaders and other stakeholders. Properly done, they help to inform debates and develop rational policy. It's our guess that the problem is that too many organizations have caught on to the value of surveys, and so respondents are simply reacting to overload.


Two weeks ago, we referred to a new Web site called howcast.com, which produces and disseminates very short how-to videos on a range of topics. We lamented the fact that the videos listed in the careers section under "government and politics" focused on topics that could only feed the public's sometimes derisive views of government.

Since then we've had a conversation with Alex Ellerson, senior vice president of business development and legal affairs at howcast.com, and he noted that there's an opportunity for governments or organizations that want to add to the collection to upload their own videos. Given the difficulty in recruiting dedicated young people to government and a great deal of ignorance about state and local government careers, we thought we'd pass this along.

If you have a very short video that you'd like to upload, or want to talk about a video you'd like to produce, contact the Web site at bizdev@howcast.com


Sometimes the foibles of the federal government are replicated in the states, cities and counties. Sometimes not. Here's one that we hope falls in the latter group, but suspect falls in the former. According to an October 2008 GAO report, federal agencies have been acquiring alternative-fuel vehicles at a moderately successful clip. That's the good news. The bad news is that they've mostly been putting old-fashioned gasoline in the tanks, which seems to defeat the purpose of the fancy new cars.


When politics meets management, which wins? Bet you know the answer. In New York State, for example, a decision was made a few years back to send out school property tax rebate checks by mail -- instead of just deducting the amount due from the taxes being paid.

This was obviously more costly and complicated. But politicians rather liked the idea of sending checks out to citizens shortly before Election Day. So that was the route they chose.

A little over a week ago, the Albany Times Union reported the following:

"Have a question about that ... school property tax rebate you just got in the mail? Don't try calling the state's toll-free help line, at least until next month. That's because if you call the state Department of Taxation and Finance with a rebate question, you'll be told they are too busy sending out checks to deal with your question, at least for now.

"'We are currently devoting all of our resources to issuing 2008 rebate checks and applications and do not have the ability to respond to individual phone inquiries at this time,' states the recording on the department's help line, which adds representatives will be available after November 17."


The best quote we've seen in a while comes from an e-mail we just received from Tom Sadowski, a regular correspondent to the B&G Report and director of accounting for the state of Missouri: "Your bureaucracy," he wrote, "is my internal control."


Folks like Tom are likely to be in high demand, if a recent survey done by Public Accounting Report is to be believed. The newsletter asked accounting professors for their "general perception of students' plans after graduation." Some 86.1 percent indicated that they thought their students were headed to a Big Four firm. Another 6.3 percent answered that large regional firms were the future, and 4.4 percent thought students were headed to Fortune 500 companies. How many mentioned jobs with government? About 0.6 percent. Workforce planners. take note.


Manager's Reading List: Our ongoing feature about books to read, recommended by B&G readers

This time around, we're bringing you some suggestions from Deborah Kerr, senior lecturer at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M.

The Constitution of the United States and The Declaration of Independence. A single, combined copy is available for free and 100 copies cost $30, free shipping. You can read either in about 30 minutes or you can give a copy to the kids at the July 4 picnic and have them entertain the group by reading the Declaration aloud. (Yes, I've done that and it was wonderful -- even though there was LOTS of eye-rolling and "oh, man you have got to be kidding," the kids really got into it and read it with feeling -- brought tears to our eyes.) How many public servants have never read it? Or haven't read it for a long while? I usually carry a couple in my briefcase and often give them away...

Strunk and White's Elements of Style. The status (as they say on Facebook) of the written word seems to be "in disrepair." I recommend this small book to my grad students and I refer to it often. All by itself, the admonition to "omit unnecessary words" makes the entire book worthwhile.

Mary Parker Follett, Prophet of Management: A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s. 2003 (reprint). Beard Books. Available online. While hardly anyone knows about her, Mary Parker Follett should have "a place in the pantheon of classic business writers." Long before Drucker, Peters, Mintzberg and Moss Kanter, Follett suggested that a business was a social institution. She outlined the approach to conflict resolution presented years later in Getting to Yes and espoused by the Harvard Negotiation Project. And her work presents the essential thinking for participative management, TQM (the quality-of-work movement of the '70s), and even networks. This collection of her lectures includes insightful commentary by editor Pauline Graham, Drucker, Kanter, Nohria, Bennis,and other renowned management scholars. It isn't easy reading, but the depth of understanding about the way things really work is remarkable.

More Manager's Reading List suggestions here, here, here and here.


In its recent downgrade of Rhode Island's bond rating, Fitch Ratings points out many issues with the current budget. One big problem: The state's projections about Medicaid count on savings that haven't been realized. As Fitch observes, "the estimated $67 million in Medicaid savings is based on reform contingent upon a federal waiver that does not appear to be forthcoming in the near term, making it difficult for the state to achieve the same amount of savings through alternate measures."

We're sure this under-estimation of Medicaid spending will pop up in many states this year -- whether states are counting on savings that may not materialize or failing to project the inevitable rise in enrollment that comes with a declining economy. If the past is any guide, the amounts that appear as supplemental budget requests in mid-year may be substantial.


There can be a tremendous disconnect between the availability of comparative information about health care and the interest in it or the ability to use it. In fact, a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that the gap between the existence of good information and its use has been growing wider.

"The 2008 Update on Consumers' Views of Patient Safety and Quality Information finds that three in 10 (30 percent) Americans say they have seen health care quality comparisons of health insurance plans, hospitals, or doctors in the past year. ... This is a downward trend from surveys in 2006 (36 percent) and 2004 (35 percent) and roughly equivalent to the level in 2000 (27 percent). Further, just one in seven (14 percent) Americans report that they 'saw' and 'used' comparative health quality information for health insurance plans, hospitals, or doctors in the past year, again down from roughly one in five in both 2006 (20 percent) and 2004 (19 percent)."

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba

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