Dubious Surpluses, Questionable Savings, Beneficial Failures and More
A roundup of public-sector management news you need to know.
Three years ago, Atlanta streamlined the building permit process in an effort to make up for increased building fees. That seemed like a rational tradeoff. But when the city auditor’s office took a look, it came up with a few unexpected -- and negative -- findings.
First of all, the Office of Buildings didn’t even bother to assess the costs of the new streamlined services so that fees could be set appropriately. As a result, it ended up with a $28 million surplus in fiscal year 2014. That’s equal to about three years of operating expenses. Fees really aren’t supposed to be a profitable enterprise, though; their simple function is to pay for services.
There’s more. Despite the surplus, “the overall median time to issue general building permits went from 41 workdays in 2013 to 51 workdays in 2014, well above the document’s target of 15 days,” according to the audit.
Projections are frequently inaccurate in the public sector. And yet, a lot of management and policy decisions are based on them. Consider revenue shortfalls, unexpected increases in pension costs, disappointing benefits from tax abatements and so on.
One disappointment in projections came to light in a National Bureau of Economic Research study of the federal weatherization assistance program for low-income people. The program's initial projections turned out to be based on badly wrought assumptions that predicted savings that were 2.5 times what actually occurred. The average return on investment was -9.5 percent.
Important data gaps exist in monitoring regional oil and gas extractions -- a critical factor to understanding and evaluating their potential risks. Take California.
The last two parts of a three-part report by the California Council on Science and Technology came out in July noting that information from the South Coast Air Quality Management District was exemplary but that there were other districts that didn't have data in an electronic form that allowed searching and analysis. The study also found many inconsistencies in the information collected.
“Vision without execution is hallucination” -- Thomas Edison
When a city announces it solved a citizen’s problem, how reliable is that conclusion? Not very, according to two recent examples.
A few weeks ago, we wrote a column that mentioned a situation in Kansas City, Mo., in which some agencies were labeling 311 customer issues as “closed” simply because a work order had been created.
More recently, we came across an example in Boston. The problem stems from an effort to invite citizen input -- in this case through a widely praised app. But when the New England Center for Investigative Reporting sampled 78 cases in which citizen-reported potholes were labeled as fixed, it found that the way they were fixed didn't meet city guidelines. In its investigation, it listed 18 as not repaired, with some re-opening within a day of being filled; and in 22 other cases, crews had fixed the pothole that was reported but left others in the same area unattended to -- a violation of city protocol.
How worried are chief financial officers of universities about the financial future? A new survey from Inside Higher Education and Gallup found that 26 percent of CFOs in public universities lack confidence in their institution’s ability to sustain its current financial model for the next 10 years. A similar percent of CFOs from private universities expressed the same concern.
But only 11 percent from public institutions indicated that they think their schools are likely to shut down in the foreseeable future, while 28 percent of those on the private side were losing sleep over that prospect.
That makes sense to Susan Fitzgerald, a senior vice president at Moody’s, who told Inside Higher Education that it’s rare for public universities to shut down because the state will step in when there's trouble. “They have that state backstop that either makes it more unlikely that they’ll close or more likely that they’ll merge.”
What should non-evaluators understand about evaluation? The Overseas Development Institute has put together a list of the top 10 things to know in an easy-to-read infographic. Two points struck us as particularly significant.
First is the notion that “failures are important.” As the infographic says, “Evaluation is sometimes driven by desire to show that a project was successful or worthwhile. Yet evaluations will almost always show mixed results. Understanding and sharing what doesn’t work is just as important as what does.”
Second, evaluation is a process that occurs throughout a project’s life -- not just at its end. As the Institute says: “In complex initiatives, evaluation should be planned and undertaken by evaluators from the outset, so that learning is fed back into the project design and implementation.”
Broadband Internet services, provided by localities, are increasingly considered to be a vital part of the infrastructure of the future. A new report from Next Century Cities, an organization devoted to helping make municipal broadband a reality gives a few tips on how.
One of the ones we liked best was the idea that municipalities should try to make sure that installing fiber for broadband capacity is integrated with other projects. The report suggested that “Installing conduit underground as part of a sewer main replacement -- or requiring that a new housing development include multi-channel conduit when it is being built (at a tiny fraction of the cost it would take to add after the streets are paved).” Given the frequency of repairs or other installations in most places, the report indicated that this approach could easily result in fiber being laid through the majority of a community within a 10 year period.
What happens in the years after a major citizen outreach effort? In 2011-2012, the North Carolina town of Chapel Hill embarked on an aggressive initiative to get citizen input for its 2020 plan. “We connected with over 20,000 citizens,” said ombuds Faith Thompson. “That’s pretty good for a town of 58,000. “We contacted people who lived, worked, played or prayed in Chapel Hill.”
But now, nearly four years later, with the 2020 plan well-established, we asked Thompson if there were lessons learned from the effort. Her answers were revealing and could be valuable for other local governments going down the same outreach road. The big issue, Thompson said, is that she wishes more had been done to sustain the outreach so the intense government-citizen connection could continue to deliver results.
At heart, she believes a superior effort would have included initiatives to make sure the people who came together four years ago would have stayed aligned and continued to be ambassadors between the town government and its own neighborhoods and communities. This was made all the more difficult by the town’s effort to include huge numbers of people; nearly a third the total population of Chapel Hill.
Today, Chapel Hill has slipped back into the more traditional posture of reporting on what it does rather than aggressively tapping citizens for their input. “I think some people have felt let down. We were high level stroking them and now, years later, they know we’ve been working, but we’re not actively concentrating on engagement."