When Social Media Works Best, The Illinois Outlier, And Bankruptcy Boogeymen

Plus: Good News for Counties, And More Management News
by | February 3, 2011
 

We've been wondering lately how much of the government-related information on social media sites actually comes from the mayors, governors and other leaders under whose name it runs. It's been our guess that the best kind of material comes directly from these elected and appointed officials, even if that's supplemented by communications from staffers.

Ingrid Kohler, who writes a blog called "Public Path," weighed in a bit on the topic, arguing against social media that's heavily managed by staff. Here, an excerpt from her blog:

"Social media works best where it's a conversation between real people. [...] Of course central communications must play a role, but the benefits of social media can only really be achieved when there's a more federated model of communications. Councilors communicating more easily with their constituents. Local people sharing information among themselves and council officers sharing matters of fact and pointers to more information with local people."


Have you noticed the number of times that articles in the general press say something negative about states' finances and then pick Illinois as the example to prove the case? No question that Illinois is a state to highlight. But these days, for many financial issues, it's an outlier. Any reader who believes that the other states are identical cousins to Illinois are badly misled. We don't suspect the reporters of purposefully trying to mislead anyone. It's just that Illinois is such an easy example to find on deadline.


We keep reading about the specter of states going bankrupt. For what it's worth, we think the whole idea is just plain silly. We've just come across a thoroughly cogent explanation about the reality of the situation from an interview with Iris Lav, senior advisor to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

"The main problem," she explains, "is that the media and others have lumped together states' current fiscal problems, which stem largely from the recession, with longer-term issues relating to debt, pension obligations, and retiree health costs. This has created the mistaken impression that drastic and immediate measures are needed to avoid an imminent fiscal meltdown.

"States and localities do face difficult choices. And they are using the tools they have — largely budget cuts and tax increases — to deal with their short-term, recession-induced challenges. This has very little to do with the longer-term issues, which states have several decades to address."


Some good news for the counties: At the beginning of the new year, President Obama signed a new law that got little attention. It required the federal government to own up to its responsibilities for the costs of local storm water management services, according to the National Association of Counties.

According to NACo, "Prior to this decision, in 15 states and in the District of Columbia, some federal installations such as post offices, other federal buildings and military bases refused to pay local stormwater fees, even though the stormwater program is a federal mandate. The federal government claimed 'sovereign immunity,' calling the charges a tax, rather than a fee, and thus, unconstitutional."

Though the dollars involved aren't gigantic, in these times of fiscal stress, they matter. Seattle, for example is now owed $1.6 million from "federal installations, generally post offices, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Health and Human Resources buildings."


As we've pointed out in passing, many people — including government officials — confuse the use of the word "deficit" and "shortfall." Admittedly, the definitions can get a bit fuzzy, but a deficit generally refers to money that's already been spent, for which there are no available matching revenues. A shortfall is more of a future-tense thing. It's what happens when a government plans to buy things that it can't afford given expected revenues.

Confusing the two can make it hard to have sensible discussions about public sector financial policy. "I can't tell you how much time I've spent with journalists on the phone explaining this," Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, told us. "They just don't get it right away."


Our favorite quote in a while was pointed out to us, via Twitter, by Patrick Madrid, editor of Envoy magazine: "The problem with Internet quotations is that many of them are not genuine." — Abraham Lincoln


Ask HR folks looking for high-level creativity whether they'd rather hire a younger person or an older person, and you're inclined to get a mix of answers. The younger people aren't tied to the "do it the way it's always been done" philosophy. Older folks have the knowledge of history upon which new, successful ideas can be built.

A posting from a blog called "Game-Changer" argues that the truth lies someplace in between. It quotes a strong piece written by Robert J. Sternberg in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "On the one hand," Sternberg wrote, "people cannot be creative without knowledge. Quite simply, they cannot go beyond the existing state of knowledge if they do not know what that state is. On the other hand, those who have an expert level of knowledge can experience tunnel vision, narrow thinking, and entrenchment. It happens to everyone.

"Many students have ideas that are creative with respect to themselves but not to a field. I tell my own students that the teaching-learning process goes two ways. I have knowledge they do not have, but they have a flexibility I do not have — precisely because they do not know as much as I do. By learning from — as well as teaching — our students, we can open channels for creativity."


"By deliberately imposing scarcity of one kind or another on their problem-solving, inventors became demonstrably more creative, and the ideas generated under such conditions enjoyed greater success in the marketplace and society than ideas invented in more 'blue sky' modes," writes Uri Neren, chief executive officer of Generate Companies, on the Harvard Business Review's blog.

This makes a lot of sense to us, and not just in the usual sense of the word "inventors." When governments have been flush with cash (remember?), they've tended not to stretch thinking to find the most elegant, practical, efficient solutions to problems. Instead, they've been inclined to just ramp up a bunch of new, then-affordable programs. But we've been impressed with the number of genuinely innovative efforts to get the work done that have been spawned by tough times in recent years.

We're not suggesting that governments root for hard times. Just that they should appreciate the innovative-ness they can foster.


We've recently come across one reason for a lack of worthwhile dialogue about civic affairs, including state and local government. People — even extremely smart people — don't tend to know much about what's happening outside of their immediate area.

In recent weeks, we've had disagreements with three separate friends. One is a doctor about whom we discussed Medicaid; another, a teacher who had strong feelings about pensions; and the third, a high-level administrative city employee who was concerned about lower-level city workers. The three conversations could have been frustrating, as our friends were thoroughly confident about the way things really work. Then we realized, in all cases, that they only really knew how things worked in their city or state — and each one assumed that it must be the same way everyplace else. We've decided to call this phenomenon the "paper bag" principle, following the notion that, "when people live in a brown paper bag, they think the whole world is brown."


For regular readers only: This doesn't have a whole lot to do with government management, but we thought regular readers of our work might enjoy tuning into CNBC on Thursday, February 3 at 9:00 P.M. Eastern time. Why? A documentary we wrote and co-produced some while ago is running for the first time in years. It's a film about the life and times of Walt Disney and is called "Walt: The Man Behind the Myth." And by the way, did you know that Walt dedicated the last several years of his life to thinking about city planning, including transportation, sanitation and so on?

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