B&G Report: Ignored Reports, Government-Bought iPods and Auditing Auditors

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Data is the foundation of a wide range of analysis that’s important to cities, counties and states. But beware when the data are self-reported. Here’s an example:

Apparently when the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) puts together its annual paper about frequency of drug use, the data is self-reported. This seems to work pretty well when it comes to marijuana. But, according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, respondents are far less likely to tell the truth when self-reporting about their use of other drugs, notably heroin.

"Estimates from the 2010 NSDUH suggest there were only about 60,000 daily and near-daily heroin users in the United States," RAND drug policy researchers Beau Kilmer and Jonathan Caulkins wrote in a USA Today editorial. "The real number is closer to 1 million."

We were lucky enough to be involved in the revision of New York City’s Mayor’s Management Report. This document, full of a remarkable amount of information about the city’s successes and failures in various policy areas, has had its better years insofar as the quality of the reporting. This time around, those involved made a concerted effort to make the report as useful as possible.

The sad news is that the city doesn’t seem to have gone out of its way to publicize the report. We can’t find any press releases online, and the only local press coverage we found was a piece in the New York Daily News. Perhaps there was something more, but if we couldn’t find much about the report, we doubt it got much attention among policymakers.

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This may have something to do with the fact that the report was done during the last days of the Bloomberg administration and issued in the early days of the new mayoral administration. So maybe it just slipped between the cracks. Let’s see what happens next time.

It’s been a little while since we’ve added to our “Manager’s Reading List.” But Candice Millard’s excellent book about the assassinated President James Garfield, Destiny of the Republic, is perfect for the B&G Report.

Over the last 25 years, we’ve heard more than a little bit of grousing about too-rigid civil service systems. But this quick read provides an excellent reminder of how important a rational, bureaucratic civil service has been to the nation, given the patronage systems that were in place before. This chilling tale of the shooting of the 20th president of the United States paints a vivid portrait of a world of patronage that existed in the 1880s. The assassin, Charles Guiteau, was an emotionally disturbed office-seeker and his victim was, by all accounts, a much loved family man and wonderful leader who had the potential to be a great president. (The parallel tale of the disastrous medical care Garfield received is pretty chilling as well.)

By the way, we’re open to hearing book recommendations for readers. Let us know if you’ve come across something that you think we should share with others.

In late 2012, the state of Virginia plunged into a $1.4 billion public-private highway project. Now, according to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, work was shut down “amid concerns over costs, management oversight and environmental permitting.” The state has already spent some $300 million on the project, and apparently work won’t pick up until contractors obtain environmental approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This is hardly an unusual event. In fact, we sometimes highlight huge projects that are actually completed on-time and on-budget -- that’s newsworthy to us. But notwithstanding this somewhat depressing notion, we wanted to repeat a question posed by S. Chris Jones, head of the Virginia House of Delegates’ appropriations committee. Jones asked: “How can you spend close to $300 million of the taxpayers’ money on a project where you don’t even have a shovel of dirt turned, no right of way purchased and don’t have a permit in hand?” We’d love to see a good answer to that one.

How hard is it to get voters to approve additional taxes in California? The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) did a study recently and came up with several interesting discoveries. One that really stood out for us was this: Voter approval has been much easier to win when measures are on local ballots instead of statewide ballots. Some 68 percent passed in local-only elections, while only 58 percent of statewide ballot initiatives passed.

It could be that this is simply a function of greater statewide voter participation, but the LAO’s analysis found that to be untrue.

Also of interest is that approval rates for local taxes have gone up from a little less than 50 percent in 1998 to nearly two-thirds in 2012.

“Just because problems aren’t easily seen and just because problems aren’t being talked about doesn’t mean they aren’t developing.” -- Ted Zaleski, Carroll County, Md., director of budget and management

Auditors are used to measuring things, but how do we measure auditors? One reasonable approach is to look at the many recommendations a state or city performance auditor makes in the course of the year, and see how many of them are implemented. Congratulations to Multnomah County, Ore., for launching a website that will track -- in great detail -- the status of its recommendations.

Many places keep track of this information, but Multnomah County’s initiative makes it a leader in this effort. It divides recommendations into three groups: implemented, not implemented and “in process.”

The benefit of this publicly available information is clear. In many places, when audits are completed, no one pays attention to the follow-through except people in the auditor’s office itself. Now, Multnomah County’s audits will have a shelf life that extends into the future -- as long as people take a look at the website.

According to multiple sources, including the state’s former inspector general, members of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission have been spending lavish amounts of money on travel and entertainment -- far beyond that which a typical government employee would even consider. According to the Boston Business Journal, one commission employee used an agency-issued credit card to order from an online wedding-goods vendor; another purchased a $423 iPod; while yet a third treated a guest to a $110 visit to a wine bar in Singapore. As a result, “nearly two dozen lawmakers have backed a bill to enforce new spending policies ... and establish formal travel and reimbursement rates.”

The gaming commission has defended itself by arguing that the state’s travel policies only apply to agencies funded through the state’s regular budget process. The gaming commission, in contrast, was originally funded with a loan from the state’s rainy day fund, which will be repaid with interest.

But some argue that a state agency is a state agency, regardless of where it gets its funding. And there’s a risk that when members of the gaming commission spend more on fancy restaurant meals and top-notch hotels than others, it may create a public appearance of a spendthrift government.

There may be another point of view here. If you have one, please share it.

Last June, within a span of just 13 minutes, a gunman in Santa Monica, Calif., went on a shooting spree in which he killed five people. During this time, he also shot at a municipal bus, at random people in the streets and so on. Tragic as this was, Santa Monica officials were generally pleased at the short amount of time between identifying the emergency and fatally shooting the killer.

There can be no silver linings to such devastating clouds. But, in this case, Santa Monica has issued a detailed report about the incident in an effort to help other cities deal with similar emergencies in a timely way and even cites clear findings as to ways in which Santa Monica could have done a better job. For individuals involved in emergency response, it’s well-worth reading.

One of the findings from the police department: “The overall success of the incident response was a result of the cooperation and assistance from outside agencies, such as the Beverly Hills Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Without their direct involvement and significant commitment of dedicated resources, the response would have been much more fractured.”

From the fire department: “The Santa Monica Fire Department should participate in additional training and exercises with the Santa Monica Police Department focusing on safely operating in active crime scenes. The use of Tactical Emergency Medical Services is crucial to a quick response to these types of events.”

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