When Less Is Not More

Some agencies don't gather data that could help them manage better-- because it might make them look bad.
 

People who make their living in journalism share the bias that information is good, and more information is better. So, when governments tell us that they don't collect some piece of seemingly important data, the alarm bells in our minds are almost audible. After all, as Adlai Stevenson said some 50 years ago, "The sources of information are the springs from which democracy drinks." We love that quote.

When we learn that information isn't gathered because it might make someone look bad, we feel frustrated. In years past, figures for deferred maintenance of infrastructure have sometimes fit into this category. In off-the-record conversations, government representatives have confided that the reason they didn't have this data was that those in power knew the numbers were huge and feared that revealing them would expose them or other officials to attacks by the press and political rivals. Of course, the information would have helped them manage maintenance in a better way--but politics trumped management.

A few years ago, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board proposed rules that would require a great deal more information about infrastructure. A letter-writing campaign ensued, in which some 1,000 governments wrote to GASB to protest. Most of the letters were nearly identical and made a number of points. But the line that really rattled us was one that pertained to an option that would lead governments to gather and report condition-related data about their roads. The governments didn't want to report this information because, the letters said, "that would effectively infringe upon our city's prerogative to make its own public policy decisions regarding expenditures for infrastructure as opposed to expenditures for other services to citizens."

Unless we're totally off base, the letter writers didn't want information to get in the way of their making decisions about what to do with taxpayer dollars.

Similar silliness goes on in other areas. Under the previous administration, Illinois didn't gather information about waiting lists for disabled people who were waiting for care. Why not? "They thought that by assembling that information they risked creating a class of individuals who were being denied services that might be considered entitlements," says Tony Paulauski, executive director of The Arc of Illinois, a developmental disability advocacy organization.

Having data, Paulauski argues, "lays the whole groundwork for how you prioritize and appropriate necessary resources. Other than that, there is no rhyme or reason to know what your needs are." Of course, Paulauski is a professional advocate. But here he's not arguing for more money, just for the state to have the information necessary to make sound decisions.

The good news is that the new administration sees things differently. Governor Rod Blagojevich signed legislation last August requiring the state to gather a whole body of data regarding people with disabilities, and the state has now brought in a number of national experts to make this happen.

Is more information invariably better? Despite our journalistic bent to demand more numbers and additional facts, the answer is no. Janet Kelly, the Albert Levin Professor of Public Service at Cleveland State University, has thought a lot about this topic and points to proposals for states to tote up all unfunded mandates to municipalities on an annual basis. "It's a fool's errand," she says. The cost of gathering the information would be tremendously expensive and would far outweigh the benefit of knowing the information with such exact precision. "It is good management in some cases to decline to gather information that will be tremendously costly to maintain," she says.

Kelly points out, as well, that there are costs other than financial ones that need to be factored into the equation. Details about tax abatements given corporations "would be tremendously important to know and would assist the local governments in predicting property tax revenues," she says. "But if it were revealed which corporations were receiving tax breaks and in what amount, then you'd have to assume that corporations that weren't receiving those breaks would want similar benefits. So that's a good reason state and local governments don't want that information revealed."

We're not sure which side of the argument we buy when it comes to tax abatements. But it is clear that the procurement of information, just like a new fleet of cars or a computer system, has to be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. We agree with Kelly that this is just good management. What worries us is that this kind of analysis is often more art than science and sometimes a way for government leaders to keep problems from the public eye.

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