Restaurant Audits, Longevity Pay and the Value of Public Amenities

Plus: the importance of IT training and more management news

A good management policy without good enforcement is like a good car without fuel. This was brought to mind by a recent report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor that looked at the states “permitting inspection and enforcement processes … to ensure the safety of food served in retail food establishments.” Among other things, the audit found that:

  • The state continued to give permits to establishments that hadn’t corrected previously found violations.
  • When violations are found, the state hardly ever responds with formal enforcement actions. As the report says, “Of the nearly 450,000 violations identified from FY 2009 to FY 2011, OPH [The Office of Public Health] issued only four compliance orders to retail food establishments and assessed penalties totaling approximately $1,300 for two of these compliance orders. However, OPH did not collect any of the penalties it assessed.”
  • Although the state uses a website to make inspection results transparent to the public, the site is way behind. This misses out on the potential market enforcement brought to bear by a disgusted public.

A few weeks ago, we offered a warning about statistics that show sudden, violent shifts without clear explanation. Now, a similar principal: When a difficult-to-measure number is wildly specific, watch out. Our example comes from the same Louisiana audit we cited above.

Here’s the quote: “According to the State Epidemiologist, accurately quantifying foodborne illness cases is difficult because not all cases are reported, and many foodborne illnesses can also be transmitted through a means other than food served at a restaurant. Despite these difficulties, the State Epidemiologist estimates that Louisiana has 163,357 cases of foodborne illness annually.”

After the preceding warnings, 163,357 hardly sounds like an estimate any more.

And while we’re at it, also watch out for numbers based on averages that hide the reality of the statistics beneath. Case in point: It may appear as though charitable giving in Hawaii (and potentially other states) is holding pretty steady. But, in fact, according to experts there, it looks like cash donations are somewhat down while in-kind donations (like clothing and food) are way up. That’s a whole different story.

Maintaining up-to-date technology is critical for well-run cities, counties and states. But governments must also ensure their employees are sufficiently trained to use the latest technology. According to New York’s Times Union, “in the first seven months of using a new financial management system aimed at improving efficiency, state agencies have amassed nearly $1.5 million in late fees for not paying bills on time.” Since the new system was inaugurated, “late payments for almost every state agency are up, and some agencies that had no late payments in the past are now facing them.” Why? The article points out a few possibilities.

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For example, some officials indicated that the budget division has been slow in getting agencies the money they need to pay on-time. But here’s the point that was of most concern to us: Both the comptroller’s office and budget division officials “say the new system is working well, although training of staff -- for which the state invested substantially with consultants -- has not yet resulted in mastery” of the new IT.

"The new norm is that there is no norm." -- Kelvin Taketa, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Independent Sector, a leadership network for nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs.

An interesting debate flared up in the pages of the Jersey Journal recently over longevity pay, the ever-expanding bonuses paid to employees to reward them for sticking around for another year. Apparently, in Jersey City this came to over $15 million last year. Here, from the article, is the core of the issue:

AGAINST: “For Joseph J. Seneca, an economics professor at Rutgers University, longevity pay harms a public entity’s ability to govern with fiscal discipline, especially in times of economic austerity.”

FOR: “Carmine Disbrow, president of the Jersey City Police Officers Benevolent Association … defended longevity pay by saying it keeps long-serving employees from making less than their subordinates.

“Ron Greco, president of the Jersey City Education Association, said longevity pay benefits the public by retaining employees year after year. When the employees stay with the city or the school district for much of their career, they provide institutional memory and consistency, Greco said.”

Congratulations to California’s transportation department for winning the judges’ Grand Prize award this year from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

To quote AASHTO’s announcement, which speaks for itself: “Caltrans utilized a $5 million communication campaign to help drivers plan for and survive a scheduled shutdown of a portion of heavily traveled I-405 in Los Angeles last year. By holding multiple news conferences in the months before the closure, conducting almost daily media interviews, creating a countdown clock on a project website, using social media, and utilizing celebrities (such as Erik Estrada) in Public Service Announcements, Caltrans was able to reach the public to get them to plan ahead or just simply stay off the roads if possible during the closure. Due to the communications plan, traffic was greatly reduced in the project area, which allowed Caltrans to reopen the very busy highway 17 hours ahead of schedule.”

How much value do public amenities have -- even during economic crunches? We broached this topic with B&G readers back in April 2010 and were inundated with e-mails that indicated that tough times more than justified eliminating things like public fireworks.

We’re not revisiting that issue, per se, now. But we did want to point out the sentiments of Trenton, N.J.’s mayor, Tony Mack, who is intent on “rebuilding its depleted and often mismanaged recreation department,” according to The Times of Trenton. While some City Councilmembers seem intent on cutting expenditures that aren’t obviously vital, according to the Times, “Mack said sports leagues and learning centers are imperative to keeping kids off the street, lowering the city’s crime rate and increasing the quality of life for residents.” We guess it’s all a question of where you draw the line.

Who is your customer? That may seem like an easy question when it comes to government services, but it’s often pretty darn tricky. The best example we know, arises with regard to state universities. They have a combination of customers, including the students, parents, future employers and the state itself.

This is why some of the measures often applied to higher education are problematic. For a long time, we’ve wondered about the value of having students evaluate their professors. From personal experience, one of the things that made us like a professor the best was when he or she gave us an A -- a transparently junky criteria for professional success as an academic. For more on this, take a look at a New York Times op-ed by Stuart Rojstaczer, a former professor at Duke University. Thanks by the way to Evaltalk, a listserv of the American Evaluation Association for pointing us to this clip and a great deal of interesting commentary on this topic.

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