B&G Report: a Ruling on Retirees, Bad Government Checks and Slow Press Offices

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It’s difficult for governments to estimate many costs that will take place in the future. In fact, we’ve gotten kind of tired of coming up with more clever metaphors about inadequate crystal balls, tepid tea leaves, ineffective tarot cards and so on. But here’s one case that reaches the range of the unfathomable. According to an Associated Press article, back in May there was a fire in a government office near the capitol building in Madison, Wis. Madison Fire Department investigators reported about $350,000 in damage -- a hefty amount but not devastating. More recently, the Department of Administration issued a news release indicating that the damage is closer to $15 million.

Maybe the Fire Department and Department of Administration were using different definitions, but this kind of publicized difference in estimates would be like telling folks the cost to refill a tank of gas that was going to be $30 dollars and having it turn out to be over $1,200.

In 2012, a class action suit challenged a law in Illinois that was intended to allow the state to charge retired workers health-care insurance premiums. Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that these health-care provisions were enforceable contracts. This will likely have a ripple effect on other states. For years, the common wisdom has been that pensions were extremely difficult to change for current employees (as they were protected by contract law) but that post-retirement health benefits were somewhat more susceptible to dramatic change. We’d think that this decision might give a boost to start funding these largely unfunded health plans.

The National Association of State Budget Officers came out with a report titled “Investing in Results” about the use of performance information in budgeting. It’s thoughtful and thorough, and we recommend it to those of you interested in this area. While one purpose of the report is to promote the use of performance measurement, the authors aren’t unafraid to spell out the obstacles. For example, the report indicates that officials may fear a loss of control by handing over some element of decision-making and relying on data-based information.

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“Concerns about loss of control, reduced expertise and a preference for the status quo are to be expected,” the report said. “Furthermore, this new method requires much upfront effort to implement a new system -- as well as ongoing review, analysis and reporting.”

City and state projects that are delayed or overbudget are more common than one would think. About 68 percent of projects in New York City cost more than their original budget estimates, while 24 percent are over by $20 million or more.

But New York has provided a website that allows citizens and policymakers to see what projects are currently delayed or overbudget. It includes a well-wrought dashboard that permits users to click through a number of elements regarding projects that are delayed or overbudget. Not only does the dashboard aggregate the number of projects in individual departments that aren’t moving along as planned, it lists every single project and includes a wide variety of data, including the current amount spent, the forecast total cost, the current phase of the project and the predicted completion date.

You'd think that government workforce planning would be getting a huge amount of attention in a day when the pool of current labor is generally aging and governments will have to fill more openings as baby boomers retire. But you’d be wrong.  A survey of local governments published in the American Review of Public Administration said only 11 percent of municipalities have a centralized formal workforce plan.

We talked with Doug Goodman, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Dallas and one of the authors of the report. He indicated that some of the specific findings were particularly surprising. For example, the study’s authors had speculated that the presence of unions in a city would make it less likely that the municipality would have comprehensive workforce planning. Their research proved just the opposite. “Unions … ended up being a fairly strong indicator of workforce planning," he said.

Another surprise was that affluent cities gave less attention to workforce planning. Researchers theorized that "a lack of fiscal stress may indicate a lackadaisical approach to workforce planning."

Let’s say you decided to pay off your car this year with a check that wouldn’t be good until next year. They call that kind of thing “check kiting.” And it’s apparently been a fiscal device used in the state of Louisiana, which has been paying higher education bills with money that should be coming in during the next fiscal year -- but without any guarantees. These include “lawsuit settlements, year-end return of money not spent by state agencies and sale of property during the year,” reports The Advertiser. “The administration and the Legislature count that as cash when budgeting, and sometimes the money doesn’t come in when expected or doesn’t come in at all.”

“Winning the election is a good-news, bad-news kind of thing. Okay, now you’re the mayor. The bad news is, now you’re the mayor.” -- Clint Eastwood, one-time mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.

We have many good relationships with people in public-sector press offices. And when they do their job well, they can help get good management information out to the public in an efficient way. We’ve noticed over time that more and more public servants have to be reached through a press office -- ostensibly to garner that positive effect.

But here, from our experience, is where the reality meets the expectations. Just over the last month or so, we’ve left messages through press offices, waited days for a return call, and then made at least one more contact to jog the individual involved. If other journalists have the same experience we do these delays can’t have a positive effect on the story that appears; the government’s own information may never reach the public -- even when it’s a good news story.

We can’t explain this phenomenon. Maybe press offices are deluged with work and understaffed. Maybe they’re told to keep the press at bay because journalists “always get things wrong.” We don’t know. But we do know that this is not a good trend to the extent that states and localities want more citizens to have faith in their work.

We know we’ve groused about this before in year’s past. But there’s a growing tendency for governments to issue online reports without dates. We understand that governments and think tanks want to appear to be current and are loathe to saddle a report with a date that soon reveals it to be old news, but it's really frustrating to see a report, particularly one that refers to "this year" or "last year," and have no idea when it was issued.

More sophisticated use of data has enormous potential for changing the way governments evaluate what they do. But before predictive analytic techniques and "rapid-cycle evaluation" can start to improve government programs, entities need to look at their data capabilities and program needs. Otherwise it’s something like flying a jet plane without making sure the wings are attached. This includes needs assessments on the quality of program data, steps to improve data governance and, if needed, investments in improved systems.  A very useful report from the Hamilton Project, prepared by Mathematica Policy Research, outlines these and other steps that states and local governments can put into play to improve programs through more skillful use of their own data.  

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