It wasn't so many years ago that the idea of a city or state setting up a useful website was considered something of a technological marvel. Now, it's hard to find a government entity of any size without a website.
Still, there are problems with lots of sites, including out-of-date information, confusing navigation tools, undated documents and hard-to-find contact information like email addresses, phone numbers or even street addresses.
Do you use your city or state websites? If so, please share with us any complaints about them, and while you're at it, if there's something you find particularly well done on a site, tell us about that, too.
The Urban Institute recently released an excellent report, "Transforming Performance Measurement in the 21st Century." While the report makes a clear and potent case for the utility of collecting, analyzing and reporting information about the performance of government agencies, it points out the many flaws in city and state performance measurement.
Some of the most significant problems governments create include collecting only limited outcome information, examining aggregated data "without digging deeper so as to link outcomes to important demographic and service characteristics of those receiving the service," underusing analysis to make the measures more useful, collecting out-of-date data, providing limited training and technical assistance to employees, and failing to provide qualitative information to help users interpret the findings.
While we're on the topic of performance, what helps or hinders governments from instituting effective pay-for-performance systems in the states? The National Association of State Personnel Executives surveyed the states and came up with some answers. Among the useful things mentioned were supportive executive and legislative branches (58 percent), technology supporting performance management (53 percent) and training/education for all (32 percent).
The barriers to doing pay-for-performance well included no linkage between performance and reward (58 percent), an unsupportive work culture (53 percent) and a lack of funding (47 percent).
There is no idea so clever and worthwhile that it can't be ruined with flawed or thoughtless implementation. There are examples abound, but here's one that really stood out to us: In 2009, Hoboken, N.J., used stimulus money to buy laptops for all of its middle school students. Now, it's going to throw them all away.
As New Jersey Public Radio reports, there are piles of these laptops, unused and gathering dust in a storage room. Why? Well, consider a handful of the implementation problems in Hoboken. First, teachers weren't adequately trained on how to use the laptops in their teaching; the software was clunky; there wasn't sufficient maintenance capacity to fix broken laptops; the wireless network wasn't robust enough to support the system; and so on.
We're not going to compare states and cities to sharks, but there's little question that many swoop in and try to steal workers or companies when they sense weakness in another. For example, a ranking of teacher pay by the National Education Association indicated that North Carolina was 47th in the country. According to The New York Times, "Concerns over the potential flight of experienced educators was exacerbated this week when representatives from the Houston Independent School District held recruitment fairs here. The Texans recruited a number of North Carolina teachers at a job fair in May."
"I don't believe there's a challenge anywhere in the world that's more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities." -- Walt Disney
States want to cut health costs. One technique in many has been to put more limits on the types of medications that Medicaid will cover. Put on your green eyeshades, and this sounds pretty good, but a recent study published in the American Journal of Managed Care indicates that these so-called "preferred drug lists" may cause irregular use of mental health medications. One result of this is that a great number of schizophrenic people have stopped regularly taking medication and wound up in prison. According to the article, "This association raises important questions as to whether increased costs to the criminal justice system might mitigate or offset prescription drug savings."
In his efforts to conserve water during the current drought, California Gov. Jerry Brown has required that residents, businesses and state agencies cut their water use by 20 percent. Unsurprisingly, many residents have trouble verifying that they have met that goal. But, according to an Associated Press investigation, only a handful of state agencies have any idea if they are complying with the governor's request because they don't have the capacity to compare this year's water consumption to last year's. The whole idea of targets and goals is pretty meaningless if governments don't know whether or not they've been reached.
It's both interesting and frustrating to read a steady stream of stories about states underestimating the impact of their tax cuts. Cutting taxes is a serious business, and policymakers should consider the impact of cuts on future fiscal serenity carefully. But when the cuts are bigger than anticipated, even well thought out plans go awry. The latest example to come to our attention has been taking place in North Carolina.
Last year, that state eliminated its three tiers of marginal tax rates and replaced them with a flat rate of 5.8 percent. Initially, analysts anticipated that the new rate would reduce tax dollars by $475 million. Now, according to a memo from legislative analyst Brian Slivka and chief economist Barry Boardman, the cost for the current tax year is more than $200 million greater. Apparently, estimates of growth in wages didn't meet expectations, and that led to the shortfall. The state will have to figure out what to do to fill the gap. We wonder if anyone will consider raising taxes.