B&G Report: Mobile Apps, the World's Worst Client and Traffic Decongestants

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Do you believe in multitasking? Many city, county and state managers are so overwhelmed with a variety of tasks that they find themselves forced into doing two or three or more things at a time (writing an e-mail, while munching on a tuna fish sandwich, while participating in a conference call with the phone on mute). Many public employees wonder whether they'd  get more done if they just worked at one thing at a time.

B&G readers, we'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Is multitasking inevitable in your job or are there ways around it? And does multitasking potentially mean that you're never working at peak efficiency?

Mobile apps appear to be a good way to get information from a city or state to the citizenry. That's why we wanted to bring your attention to a website set up by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) that provides links to these apps in all 50 states.

Some states -- like Virginia -- have many, including one that allows people to do business with the state's Department of Motor Vehicles and another that features extensive information about the state's parks. Other states have only one or two. The only app listed for New Hampshire, for example, is one that helps users identify peak times to see fall foliage.

The current list is incomplete, but NASCIO intends to continue adding to it.

Each time we see a new auditor's report on government contracting problems, we get a sense of deja vu. The issues that stand in the way of effective contracting are remarkably similar from year to year and place to place. For example, last month, the Washington state auditor's review of personal services contracts found that some 20 percent "were not procured in accordance with state laws, policies and procedures." Moreover, some 21 percent of contract amendments were signed after the contract term expired. This doesn't make sense, and state policies dictate that amendments should all be signed before expiration.

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The Washington auditor made some recommendations that we think could be of use in many states. They include improving and retaining documentation when procuring contracts, ensuring that established filing and public notice for contracts are met, and ensuring that all amendments are signed and approved before the original contract period expires.

"Any government is potentially the worst client in the world you could ever possibly want to have." -- Thomas Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio, an architecture and design firm, during a 2011 TED Talk

Decisions to buy technology are generally made after a fair amount of thought and investigation. But given the amount of time it takes to get a new IT or telecommunications system up and running, something much better often becomes available soon after new systems are installed. There are no simple solutions to this conundrum.

Oklahoma City could be used as a poster child for this problem. Back in 2003, the city government decided to buy 875 devices capable of transmitting data to and from mobile computers in police cars and fire trucks. Before the city even got its first new radio in 2006, it became apparent that this technology was already becoming outdated and that the manufacturer was planning to end its support for these units.  

Did the city try hard to get out of the contract? No. About 400 radios were installed, and data and voice problems soon followed. The city had boxed itself into a contractual corner that made it difficult to return the radios. So, Oklahoma City just decided to move on to a new and better technology, finally negotiating a return to the vendor at a loss.

We often wonder whether many cities, counties and states are chasing after money when the cost of the chase may be more expensive than the amount sought. We hear about this kind of thing all the time: Taxpayers being repeatedly informed that they owe $1.27, or some similarly minimal account. Then three stamps in, it doesn't matter whether the city gets the money because it's already operating at a loss.

One example of this kind of thing was discussed in a December 2013 audit of Chattanooga, Tenn. That city puts liens on properties that aren't cared for by owners. The audit points out, however, that 36 percent of the 1,100 liens it established over three years were for under $100. When the liens are of such low value, the audit indicates, the cost to record the liens is greater than the amount to be collected -- even if 100 percent of the liens were fully paid.  Why bother?

Midland, Texas, is a fast-growing city. As its population expanded, it was clear that the city needed to do something about traffic management before its roads turned into gas-guzzling parking lots. Midland's solution: It put in a system that has the capacity to inform a centralized Traffic Management Center about the status of congestion at 119 traffic signals and 70 pedestrian crosswalks.

READ: Oil Boom Fuels Fastest-Growing Metro Area, Midland, Texas -- But at a Price

Centralizing and automating has worked well for Midland, and doubtless would for other communities. So far, according to American City and County: "The city has also seen the following cost savings and benefits ... 27 percent reduction in total delays per vehicle, 18 percent reduction in total stops per vehicle and 10 percent reduction in fuel consumption. This adds up to $1.2 million annual savings on four major arterials alone with average vehicular volume."

READ: Inside Los Angeles' Quest to Fix the Nation's Most Congested City

Ever since the beginning of the Great Recession, we've been fretting over public-sector workers' diminished capacity to analyze all of the information that state and local governments have. We haven't seen anyone make our point more clearly than Mary Ann Hogan, the elected auditor in the city of Berkeley, Calif., in a memo to the City Council in April. She wrote:

"As Council continues to cut oversight positions from the City budget in order to save programs and services, it reduces management's ability to ensure that the City collects the revenue it needs for operations. When these positions are cut from the City budget, management simply does not have the resources it needs to effectively monitor fiscal operations and follow best practices to protect City funds and staff. This results in losses that reduce the City's ability to offer the very programs and services that Council is attempting to save."

About one third of all governors used the word "entrepreneur" in their  State of the State addresses this year. This doesn't count any number of others that talk about new businesses, startups and so on.

READ & WATCH: 2014 State of the State Speeches

The fact that this is such a hot topic for governors makes the work done by the Kauffman Foundation all the more interesting. The foundation developed a methodology for measuring entrepreneurial activity in the states. Here are some of its findings: The states with the highest rates of new business creation were Montana, Alaska, South Dakota, California and Colorado. At the other end of the spectrum were Iowa, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin.

Since Iowa was the least entrepreneurial state in the country, we thought it would be interesting to pass along Gov. Terry Branstad's comment on the topic. He believes, it appears, that technology is the key to more entrepreneurial activity. "Technology connects the entrepreneur without a dime in her pocket to the billion dollar idea in her dreams," he said.

That makes sense. But clearly something, technological or otherwise, is missing in Iowa right now.

Among the most significant managerial issues to be worked through following last year's gubernatorial election in Florida is the state's oversight of IT. Florida is developing an agency to better handle the state's IT, and at the heart of this process is an effort to consolidate the state's IT functions. This isn't going to be an easy job.

Since there's no effective preceding agency with any employees in it, Florida has to build one from scratch. And the appointment of a chief information officer (CIO) is going to have to wait a while. Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, told the Naples Daily News that Florida "would not be able to attract a highly qualified state CIO until after the election," since the position is appointed by the governor. It's hard to picture anyone accepting the CIO job, knowing that he or she might be shoved out in November.

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