B&G Report: Kickstarter for Government, the Problem with Practical Policies and Cities' Top 10 Challenges

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by | February 20, 2014
 

Ever hear about Kickstarter? It’s a remarkable online platform that permits people to raise money for projects they’d like to undertake but for which they lack the financing. The people who want funding describe their projects and indicate how much money they need to get started. If the fundraising goal is achieved, onward and upward. And if it isn’t, the contributors get their money back. Our 27-year-old son raised about $2,500 this way for an Internet-based comedy series he was writing.

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So here’s our not-so-modest proposal: “Kickstarter for Government” — especially for smaller communities. Let’s say there isn’t enough money in the budget for a small local investment like a roundabout that would make traffic safer. Why not see if enough citizens are willing to kick in a few bucks each to make it happen? From an online search, we know we're not the only ones with this idea. But we want to know whether you think some variation of this is a good idea, a bad idea, somewhere in between or simply daft. Please write and let us know.

What's uppermost on the minds of state HR directors? At the mid-year meeting of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, the organization selected five priority issues for 2014 — total compensation, pay for performance, succession planning, centralization versus decentralization and applicant screening.

The next time you look out your window and appreciate the beauty of the snowflakes gently wafting earthward, have pity on your budget officers. One of the most difficult things to predict in setting aside dollars for government budgets is the amount necessary to deal with inclement winter weather. More snow means more overtime as well as wear and tear on expensive snow-clearing equipment and a need for more road salt. This is the kind of expense that can’t be avoided. Streets need to be cleared. (Unless you side with the one-time mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., Jasper McLevy who reportedly said  “God put the snow there, let him take it away.")

USA Today recently ran a piece on this phenomenon that pointed to North Carolina as one startling example. Its Department of Transportation had budgeted $30 million for ice and snow removal this year and has already had to put out $30.1 million. And it’s just early February. Meanwhile, according to the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is already $18 million over its $61-million snow budget.

It’s endlessly frustrating to us to see the number of potentially useful policies that elected officials grab at the way a baby reaches for a bright and shiny object. We, too, are easily entranced by cool new ideas. But unless there’s a lot of clear-headed thinking about the practical ways to get a new policy to work — and the potential challenges in its path — optimism about success isn’t warranted.

We're great supporters of the idea of performance measurement, for example, but we can’t begin to count the number of instances in which a city, county or state has started a measurement system with little or no plan for getting policymakers to actually use it. Similarly, the use of managed care in Medicaid can be a useful way to cut costs without losing quality. But without careful implementation, it can turn into a disaster — as it did years ago, when Tennessee was one of the first states to use managed care in its TennCare program.

We think this idea may have been best expressed to us a few years ago by Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. “Most people focus on policy but they don't really focus in on the implementation of policy. There are some people who think that getting something done is passing a bill. That's not getting something done. Nothing is going to happen unless you implement properly and fine tune and modify and adjust and change."

Little data. In this space, the B&G Report is beginning a series of items under the rubric “little data” about instances in which relatively straightforward, uncomplicated yet important data can be elusive to the public. As we’ve noted before, so-called “big data” has become the big issue of the day. We’re not going to debate its value. But we keep coming across instances where a lack of sophisticated data isn’t the problem; it’s just that the simple data isn’t widely available.

For starters, consider a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), which looks at the difficulty Californians have in finding the records of some 48,000 state-licensed day care, preschool and after-school programs. As the CIR reports, “for the most part, these records remain stored away in obscure government offices, making access difficult for busy parents of the 1.1 million children who attend these programs.”

Would making this information available be so difficult? According to the CIR, most states make these reports available online, while California isn’t even considering taking that step. Congratulations to the CIR for its reporting on the topic and double that for its efforts “to get electronic copies from the state under the California Public Records Act with the hopes of putting them online.” Oddly, the state says it will take more than two years to get this basic information released.

The kind of approach Utah is taking to save money on schools— without diminishing the education offered— seems so obvious that it’s a surprise all the states aren’t doing the same. The Office of Legislative Auditor General there has investigated best practices regarding things like food services, food transportation and energy use. Unlike a typical audit approach, Utah wasn’t trying to find the places where money was being overspent or wasted, but rather looking for the kind of practices that led to a good return on investment, according to the [Utah] Standard Examiner.

One finding: Some of the districts that were able to prepare food inexpensively utilize a central kitchen. The suggestion that flowed from that is obvious: districts should think about “contracting for warehousing and delivery services, as a cost savings approach and also join purchasing cooperatives to receive discounts,” reported the newspaper.

“A little talent, a lot of ambition, some self-confidence and a pile of hard work.” — Norman Rockwell's 1965 views on the secret of success.

We’re not sure what to make of Connecticut. In some ways, the state seems to be getting its budget in better control than has been the case in years past. But then there’s a proposal to cut $30 million from the amount it’s paying on bonded debt even while it’s adding new spending. Problematic? Sure. But it gets more so as the governor is apparently also trying to get some $100 million more in bond money for new capital projects.

This is something like cutting your monthly payments on a credit card at the same time as you borrow more money on the same card. It can’t come to much good. Thanks to the Connecticut Mirror for pointing us to this.

Even in the depths of tough fiscal times, when cutting back on government payrolls is unavoidable, there remains a catch-22. Those payrolls help to keep the economy of the city, county or state humming.

Putting this into some perspective is a piece by Jennifer Burnett for the Council of State Governments’ Knowledge Center. A few nuggets:

  • In November 2013, federal, state and local governments employed 21.8 million employees, which make up 16 percent of total, nonfarm employment.
  • The majority of government employees — 64 percent — work for local government, while state employees make up 23 percent and federal employees make up 12 percent.
  • In November 2013, state governments employed about 5.1 million people. Rhode Island had the fewest state government employees — 16,218, while California had the most — 479,254.
  • State government employees made up 3.7 percent of total, nonfarm employment in 2013, but that percentage varies across states, from 2.5 percent in Illinois and 2.7 percent in Florida to 11.8 percent in Hawaii and 7.8 percent in Alaska.

The National League of Cities has highlighted the 10 most pressing challenges facing its members. It’s the kind of list that could give even the most stalwart mayor the shakes. Dubbed the ten “critical imperatives facing cities in 2014,” the list consists of fragile fiscal health; deteriorating transportation infrastructure; the shrinking middle class; inadequate access to higher education; the need for affordable housing; a less-than-welcoming return for veterans; gang violence; a broken immigration system; climate change and extreme weather; and a lack of public trust.

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