Why The Public Distrusts Government, The 'Best' Performance Measures, And More

Plus: measuring student achievement, balancing state budgets, and more management news.
by | November 18, 2010

Managers' Reading List: For some while, B&G Readers were sending us recommendations of books that others might appreciate. After about a year, the submissions began to dry up, so we put the regular feature on hiatus. But surely, you folks haven't stopped reading, and must have some new thoughts. Please share them with us. And just to get the ball rolling, we offer this title up, provided by Governing's former Executive Editor Alan Ehrenhalt: Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, by Charles Seife. It's a little reminiscent of the classic, "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics," and we think it should be required reading for anyone interested in management at any level.


Mish-Mash: Why does it appear that the general public is distrustful of so much of what government does? There's lots of reasons, but here's one we think is ever more prevalent: Things are just so darned confusing. Surveys show, for example, that people don't like the stimulus act. But when they're asked about most of the elements of the act (like preserving teachers' jobs), they're very happy. Moreover, lots of people seem to have conflated the stimulus act with the various bailout provisions for banks and large companies.

Not to oversimplify, but people tend to fear that which they don't understand. And in a world that's growing more complex every day, the need to clearly and systematically communicate what government is doing is more important than ever.


In the drive to find the "best" performance measures, we think some governments risk losing sight of the necessary balance of different kinds of data for worthwhile evaluations. An over-focus on outcome measures can be unfortunate, when that information is only useful in the context of outputs and inputs.


It's hard not to be impressed by New York City's CompStat system, which combines a brilliant use of data with a great deal of direct accountability in order to reduce crime. But a recent article in the New York Times pointed to a few potential issues with the much-acclaimed work.

For one thing, it's been about eight years since NYC has gathered statistics on lower-level crimes, like misdemeanor thefts and assaults. "Of the more than 500 police agencies in the state, the city's Police Department is one of only two that do not voluntarily disclose data on lower-level crimes to the state," the Times reports. Why not? "Police officials, who often boast of the department's technological capabilities in programs like its Real Time Crime Center, blame computer problems."

Perhaps even more unsettling, the Times cites accusations that the numbers used by CompStat may be juggled a bit: "In an academic survey released this year, more than 100 retired captains and higher-ranking officers indicated they were aware of instances of 'ethically inappropriate' changes to crime complaints in the seven major felony categories measured by the department."


We have no idea how to measure student achievement. As far as we can see, there are lots of ideas out there, but none come anywhere close to being a panacea. The following excerpt from an October issue of the Florida Monitor shows just how dramatic the problems with certain approaches can be. The Monitor piece is discussing an American Institutes for Research paper called International Benchmarking: State Education Performance Standards:

"This report uses international benchmarking to examine the expectations gap between what students are expected to learn in some states and what students are expected to learn in others. The differences in the stringency of the performance standards used across the states are quite large. For example, the difference between the standards in the state with the most stringent requirements and that with the lowest standards is about two standard deviations, which in many testing programs may represent as much as four grade levels. Rather than deriving performance standards exclusively from internal state content considerations, standards should be influenced more by empirical data."

And how about measuring achievement of colleges and universities? Frequently, people look at graduation rates. The concept seems reasonable enough. Good schools will be able to hang onto their students all the way through the day when they're wearing square hats. But, consider the comments of Charles Kahn from the Center for Business & Public Policy's blog: "if schools are rewarded for high pass rates, they have the incentive to lower standards and graduate everyone regardless of achievement." Uh oh.


An inspirational quote from a Blogging Innovation post: "The things we fear most in organizations -- fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances -- are the primary sources of creativity." — Alfred North Whitehead


Another one, from Blogging Innovation: "Everyone who's ever taken a shower has had an idea. It's the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference." — Nolan Bushnell


We were intrigued by the number of state-level candidates who announced that they would get their state's books in order by simply cutting costs, with no tax increases. At another time in history, this might have made some sense. But as far as we can see, many of the states have been in a relentless cut-mode for the last few years, and we can't help wonder how many other politically-acceptable cuts are out there. With this in mind, we were interested in a recent blog post by Nicholas Johnson of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. His conclusion: "... [S]olving states' recession-driven budget gaps requires a balanced approach that includes revenue measures, not just spending cuts. ... [N]ew governors would do well to acknowledge that reality -- regardless of what they said on the campaign trail."

We know that the balance between taxing and spending is a contentiously political one. But we don't think we're being political -- nor is Johnson. This seems to us to be a matter of simple math.


Public Civility Corner: We're not quite sure who was right and who was wrong in this story we picked up from the Detroit Free Press. There are clearly two sides. But it's just the kind of thing that makes us fret about the way citizens and governmental leaders interact.

Apparently, Troy Mayor Louise Schilling "abruptly adjourned a City Council meeting ... after she was shouted down by residents," according to the Free Press:

"The meeting, attended by about 100 people, ended after Schilling called it to order in a room with a 49-person capacity, which left about half of the audience standing the hallway. ...

 "'We demand to have a meeting in a room where we can all participate!' one person yelled from the hallway met with a chorus of 'yes!' from others.

"'This meeting is adjourned,' Schilling replied, before she walked out silently."

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