When Pilot Programs Crash and Burn, Getting Sick Over Sick Time, and the Problem with Fiscal Notes
Plus: Tricky tax incentives, and more management news
We were talking the other day with John Turcotte, the director of the Program Evaluation Division in North Carolina (and a veteran of evaluation shops in Mississippi and Florida as well). He always has interesting things to say. So when he launched into a self-described "sermonette" about pilot programs, we paid close attention to his complaints. Too often, Turcotte believes, pilot programs are started with the general aspiration of testing out a new approach, but without any real effort to build in an evaluation. "When you have a pilot project, if you don't scientifically design the project to show results, the only thing the Legislature sees in the end is anecdotal information," he told us.
As a result, "You can't know if a program is making a difference or not." And of course, that's the very idea behind pilot programs in the first place — to try something out on a small scale and decide whether it's worth expanding more broadly.
One problem, Turcotte says, is that legislators want to put money into program services, and if money is requested on the front end for evaluation, there's resistance because there's a sense that the money is going to administration and not services.
Wow! We were startled at the deluge of emails we received in response to our query about whether sick days should be counted the same as working days when calculating overtime. Some of the notes made a solid case that there were reasons for doing so. Many took the opposite point of view — a surprising number of which took a fringe-vitriolic tone. The core of many of the notes that opposed the use of sick days in calculating overtime was that such a policy was open to abuse. The clerk of a small Massachusetts community indicated that she was concerned about employees' calling in sick exclusively in order to get overtime hours. She mentioned the notion that police can "take a vacation day to work a detail that is paid by the municipality (i.e. election details), and therefore get paid twice for the same workday."
Stay tuned. In a couple weeks we'll give you a more complete rundown of the comments that have been pouring in.
Fiscal notes can be a crucial aid to legislators who want to know how much a piece of legislation is actually going to cost before they vote for or against it. Making decisions without this kind of information (whether in fiscal notes or some other form) is something like ordering from a fancy menu with no prices attached: Only the very rich can get away with it. Yet the frequency with which these notes are written — and how usesful the notes actually are — varies from state to state and city to city.
What's more, even when a legislature does have access to fiscal notes, that doesn't mean they've got everything they need, as a February report from Minnesota's Office of the Legislative Auditor points out. For one thing, according to the brief, "many fiscal notes do not adequately explain their estimates or show their calculations, making it harder to assess their reasonableness." This is critical information, as legislators should be able to debate the assumptions that go into the cost figure. They can't do that if they don't know what the assumptions are. "Discussions of fiscal note estimates should be viewed as a natural part of the legislative budget process," wrote the Legislative Auditor's office.
The paper also complains that fiscal notes frequently provide limited information about local impacts. "About 38 percent of fiscal notes indicate that the relevant bills would have local impact," the report says. "But fiscal notes generally do not estimate the bills' dollar impacts on local governments, and some have fairly limited discussions of local impacts."
Tax incentives are a topic that produces heated debate from coast to coast. Economists, politicians and practitioners all have a wide range of opinions about the utility of incentives. We just came across a really interesting piece by James W. Fossett, the director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government's health, Medicaid studies and bioethics research programs. He tackles the specific question of using tax dollars to help support relatively small biotechnology firms. As any stock market investor knows, it takes an iron stomach to invest in the stocks of such firms. Fossett's point, at heart, is that these companies can seem very attractive initially (Won't it be cool if we invest in stem-cell research?). But at the same time, the states owe it to their citizens to do genuinely thorough due diligence before plunging in.
"Investing in biotechnology remains a high-risk, uncertain proposition for both states and private companies," he writes on the Institute's site. "Most products and most companies will likely continue to fail. States that are willing to be proactive and entrepreneurial in their funding strategies, however, may be able to reduce the political and scientific risks of supporting these undertakings to an acceptable level."
Kudos to Edward P. Smith, managing editor of State Legislatures magazine, for coining a new phrase that we think is right on the money. Referring to the current economic climate can be tricky: We're not still in the Great Recession, but we're not exactly post-recession, either. It's not really a "crisis," and calling it a "downturn" doesn't feel right. Smith's suggestion? "Call it the Great Uncertainty."
When performance information doesn't seem to be effective, there's a strong temptation to start tinkering around the fringes — changing the nature of the measures, the appearance of the report and so on. But Elaine Pulakos, president of PDRI, a consulting firm with a strong background in performance appraisal, thinks government would be better served by working with the people involved, not fiddling with fine print. "We need to train our managers on how to manage employee performance more effectively," she told us. "And we need better selection processes so we get the right people into management jobs."
Here, from Pulakos, are five ways to move in this direction:
- Make sure employees understand how their work fits into the overall mission. This empowers them and enables them to act independently in alignment with that mission.
- Communicate clear expectations on an ongoing basis to accommodate ever-changing work. This ensures employees always know what needs to be done and what success looks like, enabling them to produce higher quality work.
- Provide ongoing, regular feedback as part of everyday work. This makes conversations about performance a normal and expected part of the work process, resulting in higher engagement and performance.
- Support employees and help them find solutions to problems, which builds trust and enhances engagement, which in turn improves performance.
- Provide the right developmental experiences at the right time. The vast majority of learning occurs on the job so developing employees through strategic work assignments builds skills, engagement and performance.
Managers Reading List: We've both recently read a book called The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson. It's a fascinating story of how city leaders in London dealt with the cholera epidemic of 1854. It could be used as a case study of the benefits of using actual information to determine the direction of public policy. At the time, theories that cholera was transmitted through water (which it was) were ridiculed. Then, a pair of intrepid investigators mapped out the relationship between cholera victims and the use of one particular water pump. With this evidence in hand, the city was finally able to make changes in infrastructure that saved untold numbers of lives.
Read more of our Managers Reading List of useful titles for public leaders.
Analytic capacity in cities and states is under siege. We've made that comment repeatedly over the last few years as budget cuts have led to dramatic declines in this kind of work in the public sector. So we were particularly interested when we got a note from the Denver auditor's office indicating that it was running opposite to the trend we've seen.
A little history: About six years ago, the city decided to change the function of the auditor. Up until then the auditor's office had fundamentally been responsible for fiscal affairs. But the decision was made then to remove those responsibilities and bring in a performance audit function. According to Kip Memmott, who was recruited in 2007 to redesign and restructure the office, the initial plan was to create three performance audit teams that would be rolled out over time. "The first was an IT audit team," explains Memmot, "and that was prior to the recession. But even when the recession hit, because of the value added of the audit office and its frugal fiscal stewardship, the budget office hasn't even asked us to make cuts." In fact, contrary to the national trend, Denver's audit shop has continued to add staff over the last few years.
Part of the reason the independently elected auditor has had such success may be related to the overall strength of the office. The city charter grants it broad audit authority, including comprehensive access to all city records and employees; the ability to establish and execute its own annual audit plan, free from previously mandated audits; and the authority to require auditees to formally respond to all audit findings and recommendations. The results of the audits are presented to the Audit Committee during publicly televised meetings, ensuring that audit recommendations are acted upon in a timely manner and that the city's residents are well informed. As far as we know, the Denver audit model is unique in the nation, thanks to these attributes.
The battle to attract senior citizens to states has reached a fevered pitch in some parts of the country. One of the biggest weapons used is to offer tax breaks for older residents. But this may not be altogether wise, writes Howard Gleckman, a resident fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, in the Christian Science Monitor.
Gleckman argues that the health-care bills for older citizens may easily outweigh the revenues they bring to a state. "About 70 percent of seniors will eventually require long-term care services in old age, and 20 percent will need this assistance for five years or more," writes Gleckman. "Many are middle-income seniors who spend down their assets on personal care and eventually become eligible for Medicaid. About one-third of Medicaid dollars are spent on long-term care services and the program is a growing burden on state budgets.
"Thus, while states may benefit in the short-run from attracting a few relatively young, healthy, and wealthy pensioners, they may end up paying a substantial price when middle-income seniors become frail, go broke, and require Medicaid long-term care services."
B&G's clear crystal ball: We make lots of predictions in this space, but one we've made frequently — and which we're most confident about — is a swelling backlash against user fees. A new example from the Associated Press on Feb. 9: Leaders in Franklin Township, Ind., had eliminated free bus service to help close an $8 million budget shortfall. (It seems to us that offering free schools but charging parents to get their children to them is stretching the definition of the word "free." It's kind of like giving free tickets to a 3D theater and then charging 10 bucks for those funny little plastic glasses.) Meanwhile, it looks very much like the state Legislature is going to ban the fees. According to the AP, the state attorney general argues that this was an unconstitutional fee altogether because the district contracted "with an outside agency and then [imposed] the arrangement on parents."