An Outsourcing Reversal, Misnamed Agencies and Reading Recommendations

Plus more public-sector management news you need to know.
November 20, 2014
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

We’re seeing state and local governments moving outsourced programs back in-house. One reason for this trend that we've heard from several sources is the lack of responsiveness among private-sector contractors to providing data. This was one of the key reasons that North Carolina's Orange County increased the use of public employees in its recycling efforts while reducing the use of private contractors. "We could not get decent data from our private-sector partners to help make decisions," said Blair Pollock, solid waste planner for Orange County, speaking at the Public Administration Conference at the University of North Carolina's School of Government.

If you’re not from Texas, you might think that the Texas Railroad Commission is charged with dealing with railroads in the state. But that’s not the case. In fact, its main function is the regulation of oil and gas. Moreover, it hasn’t had any jurisdiction over railroads at all since 2005. Does it matter if the name of a government organization has little to do with what it actually does?

This appears in the free Management e-newsletter. Click to subscribe.

This is hardly the only case of a misnamed agency, and we can’t help but think that this leads to confusion among citizens about how state government works. But that doesn’t necessarily mean citizens want to clarify matters. On Election Day in Montana, for example, voters narrowly defeated a move to change the name of the office of state auditor to the commissioner of securities and insurance. The logic behind the proposal? The office of the state auditor doesn’t actually audit agencies. Its job is to regulate insurance and securities.

Interestingly, a citizen who is searching for "Montana state auditor" is directed to a website labeled "Montana Commissioner of Insurance and Securities." The website itself is labeled in that fashion (albeit in rather small type).

"One of the things I've been intrigued about is we have a compliant society. People want to be compliant. They are much more compliant if they think we have data and they think we actually know something.” -- John Koskinen, IRS Commissioner

There seems to be an illusion that putting up tons of websites will lead to greater transparency. It’s not as simple as that. Consider state contract databases, for example. We spent a while trying to find the largest contracts for a number of states. But we discovered that many of the sites were out of date, used inconsistent verbiage (including multiple names for the same vendors) and offered very clumsy tools for users.

The Pennsylvania eMarketplace portal, for instance, is supposed to provide a one-stop shop for bidding, awards and other contract information.

We went looking for the largest contracts awarded over the last 90 days (in a section listed as “awards”).  A Tips & Tricks page suggested we could click on the top of the dollar amount column to shift from ascending to descending order.  But when we attempted to use this method to list the contracts in descending order, we found that a Corrections Department contract for American cheese for $9,840 is listed above a contract for a corrections van body truck for $97,991. The reason for this problem is simple, and it’s a surprise it hasn’t been fixed yet. The database just doesn’t understand number placement. So, anything beginning with  98 is considered higher than somethingbeginning with 97, regardless of the value of the number.

It’s a wonderful thing to have good policies in place. And it’s even better if they can be managed well. But when there’s insufficient funding available, nothing else matters. That’s a pretty common scenario, nicely demonstrated in King County, Washington. Some fifteen years ago, the county set up a reserve fund to make sure there was enough money to maintain county buildings on a regular basis. But a recent audit indicated that between 2002 and 2010, the account received just 34 percent of dedicated funding. As a result, “The electrical system in the King County Courthouse is far past its intended life span and could fail at any time, rendering the building unusable.”

While we’re writing about deferred maintenance, it’s worth looking at a jolting auditor’s report from San Jose, Calif. According to the report, “as of April 2014, Public Works estimated that City buildings had a deferred maintenance backlog of roughly $120 million.”

That’s a pretty big number, but the audit grows ever more damning when it points out that “thorough condition assessments have not been conducted in a decade.” This is particularly difficult in times when there isn’t enough money available to keep up with maintenance and “prioritization of competing needs becomes ever more important,” according to the audit. If a city doesn’t really know what condition its assets are in, it’s unlikely to be able to prioritize the projects on which to spend its limited dollars.

Recommended reading for anyone dealing with government auditors: Auditing Is Dangerous provides some perspective on what life is like for government auditors. As the author, Leita Fanta, writes, if auditors tell the truth "it can come back to bite them. If they don't tell the truth, the scandals they are covering will come to light and implicate the auditor."

As the world's fondness for evidence based-practices has increased, centers that report on evidence quality for government programs have proliferated. But these centers use different vocabularies and rating methods, which can make it difficult to for managers and policy makers to find the information they want.

Results First (where we have worked as consultants, though not on this project) an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, has now put together a database of eight clearinghouses, which conduct literature reviews and rate different programs.

The database reconciles the various systems and vocabularies, in a simple, but useful fashion and gives a quick view of whether the analyses yield promising approaches or not. It includes links to the clearinghouses and summaries of the evaluations and shows which centers have done analyses on a variety of specific programs including criminal justice, mental health, education and more.

The improvement in Medicaid quality in the last ten years is worthy of applause. There's still room for lots of further gains, but the State of Health Care Quality 2014 carries positive news about people in Medicaid managed care. Some examples: In 2002, 40.5 percent of children between 4 and 6 had an annual dental visit; in 2013, 56.5 percent did; for 11 to 14 year olds, the percent with annual visits rose from 39.3 percent to 53.3 percent.

Child visits for babies and toddlers ages 0 to 15 months rose from 37.3 percent in 2001 to 61.6 percent in 2013. Among children and teenagers = the percent screened for body mass index rose from 30.3 percent in 2009 to 56.9 percent in 2013. Those receiving counseling for physical activity jumped from 32.5 percent in 2009 to 50.5 percent in 2013.

There were also many areas of improvement for adults. A sample: Cholesterol screening went from 75.5 percent in 2006 to 81.1 percent in 2013.The percent of adults receiving recommended beta-blocker treatment after a heart attack rose from 69.8 percent in 2005 to 84.2 percent in 2013.

The idea that states and localities should have designated “innovation offices,” to identify and generate promising new ideas has been gaining traction. But though these offices sound sexy, there’s a danger that states, cities and counties may establish them without sufficient thought in advance.

“Government leaders should not make the decision to set up an innovation office lightly, and should not create an innovation office for symbolic reasons,” according to an IBM Center for the Business of Government Report, A Guide to Making Innovation Offices Work. “Rather, moving forward with setting up a center of gravity for innovation should follow a careful assessment of the mission of the new office, financial resources available, and support from key partners.” Innovation components may be good in some places, but not every government organization benefits from an innovation office, and such offices sometimes aren’t a good way to reach many organizations’ objectives.