The National Conference of State Legislatures has taken a good look at the legislative agendas of the states and come up with a list of 12 items that are likely to be important topics in 2012. Managers are doubtless familiar with many of these items. But if any aren't on your work list now, and they apply in some way to your job, watch out — they're coming. The 12, which were presented by NCSL in no special order, are: federal deficit reductions and their effect on states; budgets; jobs and state economies; pensions, Medicaid, elections, health reform, criminal justice, education, transportation funding, the environment and natural gas.
As it happens, the list of issues overlaps with Governing's own Issues to Watch for 2012: fracking, voter ID, immigration, transportation funding, taxation, health exchanges, K-12 reform, job creation and pension reform.
A straw in the wind? Many taxpayer-funded services are only available to the people who are actually paying the taxes. You'd hardly expect sanitation workers to pick up the trash one or two towns over, right? But there are also some amenities, like public parks, many local roads and libraries that are free to outsiders. With an ongoing crunch in cities, might that change?
Consider the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville, Va. According to the Daily Progress there, the need for more revenue has encouraged leaders to strongly consider charging subscription fees to people from localities outside the libraries' jurisdiction. Some in the area worry that if this takes place, other neighboring counties might follow suit, leaving residents worse off in exchange for what the Daily Progress describes as a relatively small revenue booster.
A cost-benefit analysis of the proposal has been strongly recommended. We'll keep tabs. When and if such a study is done, we'll keep you posted.
Another user-fee note: We were surprised to discover in a report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) in Florida that "12 states allow and 1 state mandates districts to charge parents fees to transport their children to and from school."
Measuring performance is an endlessly complex endeavor. Consider the widespread use of deaths as a measure of hospital quality. Sure, it makes sense at first blush. It's pretty easy to count deaths, and they certainly don't seem like the kind of thing that hospitals are aiming for. But wait.
According to a recent piece in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a study out of the Yale School of Medicine suggests that limiting the death count to instances where a patient dies while still in the hospital ensures misleading data. Instead, the researchers find, hospitals might be far better off looking at rates of patients who die within 30 days, even if they've been discharged weeks prior.
For example, according to the article, one-third to one-half of mortalities from heart attacks, heart failures and pneumonia don't occur until after people leave hospital settings. That means, potentially, that hospitals inclined to release people more quickly may look better in terms of death rates, but not actually be superior.
Calling Noah Webster. It's easy to assume that we're all speaking the same language, and that a word in one agency means the same thing in the agency next door. But that's not necessarily true. Consider homelessness. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office points out a variety of differences in the way the word "homelessness" is used. According to the GAO, for example, "The definitions [of homelessness] range from people living in emergency or transitional shelters or on the street to those living with others because of economic hardship or living in motels or campgrounds because they lack other adequate alternative accommodations."
The lesson here: Before you assume that any comparison is valid, make sure the terms are being used consistently.
"In government, as in life, you can never solve a problem if you refuse to acknowledge it."
— New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his 2012 State of the State address
Shortly before the New Year, we asked B&G readers for their thoughts about performance evaluations in the public sector. We received a number of particularly thoughtful responses — some defending their use, others objecting to them. We've pulled together a sampling of some of the most thought-provoking responses.
One of the standouts was from William Haapala, manager in the municipal division of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Based on his 40 years of government experience, he shared the notion that "traditional evaluation systems do not reliably measure or improve performance." He followed that up with a long list of reasons why, starting with the following four:
"There is inconsistency or no connection between hiring qualifications, job description and performance evaluation.
"There are unspoken and unwritten performance dimensions that influence the evaluator and surprise the employee.
"The forms do not accurately capture the work people need to do and the wide variety of knowledge, skills and abilities required to operate an organization.
"One form is used to evaluate the wide range of jobs and levels of jobs in an organization."
Bad leaders? Over the course of years, it's been our observation that B&G readers seem to be very interested in pieces about the elements that contribute to good and bad leadership. We just came across an interesting list of attributes of bad leaders from the Harvard Business Review. The piece ran a couple of years ago, but we think it still holds true.
The 10 "fatal flaws" that cause bad leadership, according to the study, are that the leaders: lack of energy and enthusiasm; acceptance of their own mediocre performance; lack of clear vision and direction; poor judgment; failure to collaborate; failure to follow the standards they set for others; resistance to new ideas; not learning from mistakes; lack of interpersonal skills and failure to develop others.
About 30 years ago, when word processors were relatively new to the world, we discovered that it was a little difficult for us to effectively edit text that was glowing with magical light from a screen. Everything looked so cool that it was hard to find the flaws. After a while we got used to it, and the words on computer screens look no more reliable than those on a yellow legal pad.
Something similar, we think, may be occurring with the advent of new technologies that make the production of so-called "infographics" ever easier. They look so pretty that it's easy to be sucked in unquestioningly. But at the same time, we are noting a growing number of instances in which these eye-pleasing charts and graphs are misleading. As Smashing Magazine commented some months back, "Most designers would probably not edit a politician's party affiliation in a news article to make the text wrap in a way that is more pleasing to the eye. With data, though, careless designers all too readily sacrifice truth for the sake of aesthetics."
Our recommendation for managers eager to immunize themselves against instances of this phenomena: Read (or reread) the 57-year-old classic How to Lie With Statistics. If nothing else, it will hop up those brain cells of yours that are responsible for truth-seeking.
Congrats to Alaska. For years, despite the huge fiscal reserves Alaska has in place, we've been writing about the shaky nature of the state's finances. This has been based on our reviews of the state's budgeting, coupled with the uncertainties of the oil revenues on which it depends.
But just a few weeks ago, Standard & Poor's Rating Services raised the state to a AAA rating, one of only 14 states that can make that claim. Here's the logic behind the change, according to credit analyst Gabriel Petek in an S&P press release: "Recognizing the volatility inherent in an oil-based economy, the state's financial management has adjusted by using methods to, in our view, significantly mitigate the downside effects of oil price declines. Before even reaching the point of needing to tap its formal budget reserves, the state has several layers of fiscal flexibility it could exploit. Among these are the state's unique practice of pre-funding around 20% of its annual operating budget and cash funding significant portions of its capital needs. In addition, despite a relatively below-average pension funded ratio, the state is ahead of the reform curve, having closed its defined benefit plan in 2006."