B&G Report: 'Reinstitution' of the Mentally Ill, Comprehensible Courtrooms, and the Flexibility Stigma

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As the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland said, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" That's often our feeling when it comes to new social media. We got used to Twitter, and then LinkedIn came along. Then we adapted good uses for LinkedIn, and found that there were some ways to improve communications through Facebook. We're kind of out of steam now, but we keep hearing about new social media that -- we're told -- will make us more effective and efficient at our work.

What advice do you have for us and B&G Report readers? Please share. Which social media platforms do you find most useful in government work? Which have been the most overhyped? Have you come across any particular uses for popular social media that others don't seem to use? We await the sage counsel of B&G Readers.

Years ago, reformers started to use the phrase "de-institutionalization" to describe the effort to get mentally ill men and women out of state-run facilities and into more appropriate settings. The movement had many positives, but it's not news to anyone that it had the unfortunate side effect of pushing droves of people into the streets.

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Unfortunately, de-institutionalization could often be better characterized as "re-institutionalization." According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, prisons or jails in 44 states have more inmates with serious mental illnesses than the largest state psychiatric hospitals. Nationwide, the number of mentally ill people in prisons and jails is ten times the number remaining in state hospitals.

One way to improve trust in courts is to improve communication in the courtroom itself. A pilot project in Milwaukee County Criminal Court did just that by training judges to bridge the gap between the system and defendants. As a result of the training, judges became much better at explaining the order cases were called, making eye contact with defendants, clearly explaining case procedures, asking if the defendant or their attorney had anything to say before the decision and, perhaps most importantly, the judges began to "demonstrate an interest in the defendants' comprehension of the plea agreement." A full evaluation of the pilot project can be found at the Center for Court Innovation.

Some of the biggest mysteries of state and local government finance have to do with the huge contracts government entities sign each year. In our experience, getting details about these contracts can be akin to a hunt for the Loch Ness Monster -- except that we know that the contracts exist. With that in mind, congratulations to the city of Philadelphia for its new open data website, which allows users to learn about the city's professional services contracts in a searchable format that includes a breakdown of contract dollars by vendor, department and type. The site will be updated quarterly, making it potentially much better than so many transparency websites that are half real transparency and half a window into the past.

When we ask human resource directors about innovative ways to create a more productive and happier workforce, the concept of flextime comes up frequently. But there may be an unrecognized wrinkle here. According to a new study by Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, it appears that there's broad support for flextime for employees who use it for things like personal health-related purposes. But the same doesn't hold true when it's used for family care-related responsibilities.

This comes as a surprise to us. And, assuming her results are valid, it's a troublesome discovery. Apparently, says Cech, there can be a "flexibility stigma," which does very bad things for the morale of some individuals who use flextime. Cech's study didn't apply specifically to the public sector, but there's no reason to believe that it's not applicable there.

"Every man is proud of what he does well; and no man is proud of what he does not do well. With the former, his heart is in his work; and he will do twice as much of it with less fatigue. The latter performs a little imperfectly, looks at it in disgust, turns from it, and imagines himself exceedingly tired. The little he has done, comes to nothing, for want of finishing." -- Abraham Lincoln

You may think Hollywood is the be-all and end-all for the film and television industry, but that's not so true anymore. According to Marketplace Business, only 8 percent of big budget films were made in Los Angeles last year -- compared to 65 percent in 1997. Partially because of massive tax incentives, states like Georgia, Louisiana and New York and countries like Canada and the United Kingdom are magnets for the sort of films that used to be made in Hollywood. We're not entirely certain that these new outlets for big screen production always get a good return for these incentives, but we do know that the migration has led L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to declare a "state of emergency" for the local film and TV industry.

What to do? The California legislature is considering a bill that would upgrade the state's film production tax credit and expand the types of films eligible to apply. Given our doubts about the governmental benefits of offering large tax incentives, we sure hope that the legislature will take the time to clearly figure out the cost-benefit ratio before it decides to make such a move.

For some years now, we've argued that state and local tax rates aren't necessarily the most important element of economic development. We've suggested that an educated labor force, for example, can easily trump low taxes when companies are looking for a place to settle, grow or remain. We know that there are those who disagree, and we're not going to advance our argument here, but we do want to point out an excellent distinction made recently in a report issued by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a policy think tank in Trenton. The paper points to a critical and indisputable distinction between "state business tax climate" and "state business climate." They are, quite simply, different things and public policy discussions have to be clear as to precisely what each represents and what that means when it's time to make decisions about taxes.

Emails keep coming in about the Smart Management column we wrote about email and its associated problems. A particularly interesting one just arrived from Barry Van Lare, former director of the National Governors Association Office of Management Consulting and Training. We thought we'd pass along a few excerpts:

You note the importance of avoiding the use of business email for personal correspondence.  The reverse is also true as the use of personal emails for business purposes is also coming under scrutiny as a violation of transparency and public records laws.

Requesting guidance or a policy decision via email also threatens to undercut formal decision making processes that were created to ensure that decisions were adequately staffed to ensure that other parties who may have relevant information or opinions were consulted.

E-mail also tends to encourage 'off the cuff' decision making as the tendency is to reply to email as it is received, rather than to place the inquiry in the normal queue of pending work.  (How many people ever return to review yesterday's email?)

In the long quest for ways to stem health-care cost growth, promising news came from a newly released study of Medicare prescription drug coverage. The study compared hospitalization before and after 2006, when the federal government took over prescription drug coverage for older people through Medicare Part D. Researchers at the University of Illinois and Johns Hopkins saw an 8 percent drop in hospital admissions and $1.5 billion in annual savings. They found that prescription coverage through Medicare led to a significant drop in hospitalizations for dehydration, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure.

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