B&G Report: Forgotten "Little Data," the Surprising Quality of Innovative Project Managers and More

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November 21, 2013

In our constant explorations of government management and policy, we are frequent visitors to state legislative websites. Some, like Virginia’s, are treasure troves of information. But the New York legislature’s site has always defeated us. We've rarely been able to find anything easily, as reports and presentations are buried within committee files.

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Imagine our delight when we came upon a checklist put out by the New York State library that is issued monthly and provides links to the hundreds of reports that come out of New York government each year. Our joy was short lived, however, when we realized that every link in the September 2013 version was broken. We thought that the problem might lie with our own computer so we called the library help desk. A very courteous librarian tried the links himself and, to his surprise, received the same message -- not just for the links within the September report but for the links in every monthly report issued in 2013.

Here's hoping that by the time anyone is reading this, the glitch has been corrected.

Utilizing return on investment figures for public programs appears to be a terrific idea. But don’t underestimate the difficulty of coming up with valid information. Even as careful a state as Utah can make mistakes. Consider the Utah Science and Technology Research (USTAR) Initiative.

The state and federal government have invested $334 million in that program since 2007. But when subjected to an October performance audit, the return on investment (ROI) figures showing the value of the program crumbled under scrutiny. From the report: "We found that USTAR’s reported return on investment was inaccurate and flawed. Over half of the reported revenue was unrealized, invalid and over-reported. Jobs created were also inflated and USTAR’s reported ROI was not reflective of an expansion of tax revenue to the state.”

We seem to be tottering on the edge of an era in which powerful computers use unthinkably huge amounts of data to answer difficult questions. But we wonder: How come there's so much simple data that we can't find across all 50 states without making 50 phone calls? It’s odd that a society so intrigued with so-called “big data” could so complacently fail to address the absence of critical "little data."

We don’t really understand this phenomenon, but over the years we’ve become aware that one of the most opaque government functions is higher education. The kind of information you’d anticipate from state government institutions just isn’t there for universities in many states.

In Pennsylvania, some legislators are trying to change sections of the state’s Open Records Law in order to mandate greater disclosure from universities funded in part by taxpayer dollars. But the schools don’t want to go along. Their lawyers “oppose efforts to bring transparency to the schools’ spending because they have concerns ranging from the cost of answering right-to-know requests to privacy issues like the disclosure of faculty salaries,” according to Eric Boehm of the Pennsylvania Independent.

Apparently the universities feel that the cost of making disclosures would be too taxing to them, as they argue that they don’t have sufficient administrative personnel to do so. We understand. We sympathize. But we also think that the public has a clear right to know how its money is being spent.

We've long noticed, with regret, that a whole lot more attention gets focused on long-term goals when they're set than at the end of the time period in which they're supposed to be achieved.Take New York's effort to reduce energy costs for many agencies and authorities. The ambitious goal, set through a gubernatorial executive order in 2001, was for agencies to consume 35 percent less energy in 2010 than they had in 1990.

Well 2010 has come and gone. To date, the state has yet to issue a final report on this initiative  -- possibly because there was simply not enough information available. According to a New York State Comptroller’s report, many of the 111 agencies that were supposed to keep the state appraised of their progress simply haven’t complied. Of the reports due in 2011, only 38 agencies made submissions and only 28 of those provided actual energy usage data.

“All models are wrong but some are useful.” -- George Box, professor emeritus of Statistics and of Industrial & Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, who died March 28 at the age of 93.

For years, we’ve been pointing out that Connecticut has been keeping its budget books in a way that makes things look much better than they actually are. We won’t take you through the complexities of the accounting, but the simple idea is that Connecticut tended to count revenues when the state felt sure they’d be coming in, but it didn’t count expenditures until they were paid. This made comparing Connecticut’s finances to those in other states a difficult exercise -- the kind of thing that required an asterisk.

But now, Connecticut has decided to change the timing of its revenues and expenditures to the way it’s done elsewhere. That, in turn means that the state has to come up with over $500 million in the coming budget (and much more in the next couple of budgets) or be required to show itself running a deficit of that size. Solution: Borrow $560 million this year. This may make it appear as if the state just spent a huge sum of money. But it doesn’t. It means the state is finally confronting the truth. And that’s a good thing.

Congratulations to the Illinois Comptroller’s office for its new website called The Warehouse. It gives visitors a chance to get a far better understanding of the state’s localities by posting yearly reports they file with the comptroller’s office. True, this isn’t the first time that some of this material was on the Internet. But the new site makes searching out information far simpler.

As the comptroller, Judy Baar Topinka, wrote, “You can search the Warehouse by report type, unit of government or a community name. Once you have selected a local government, you will be taken to a landing page where you can review a snapshot of finances, annual financial reports and audits. And by clicking on a ‘compare data’ button, you can see how one unit of government stacks up against another.”

The site certainly isn’t ideal. For example, the comparisons it offers between entities just mean side-by-side lists of a variety of data -- not a genuine comparison with percentage or aggregate differences. But though there’s a way to go, this is a start.

What makes a good project manager? We suspect most people would say that someone who deserves this praise simply makes sure that projects come in on-time, on-budget and as anticipated.

But according to an intriguing article in projectmanagers.net, an effort to simply put one foot in front of the other, in prescribed fashion, with acceptable results, can sometimes lead workers to avoid making the kinds of innovations that come from taking risks. The article cites Harvard Business Review’s Markus Lorenz as saying, “efficiency minded project managers are inadvertently discouraging the explorations -- and therefore the learning -- that make radical ideas practical,” in some instances.

From the kind of fiscal perspective that’s vital in most cities, counties and states, it might be asking for too much to go beyond simple success. Indeed, so many projects fall behind time and above budget that these already look like stretch goals. But it’s worth considering the idea that when it’s possible to experiment a bit, there’s the potential for an even bigger than hoped-for payoff.

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