States, counties and cities are focusing their managerial skills on ways to cut cascading health care costs. That’s fair. And they mostly say that they want to cut the health care costs without diminishing the quality of the care. Again, managers can try to grapple with such a difficult task but there’s a risk that too much attention to saving dollars could diminish the drive to improve health, extend life and extend quality of life. Do you think that’s a possibility? If so, do you see it as a dangerous one? Or are we just worrywarts?
Does the transparency movement feel like a tidal wave to you, flowing over every government entity from coast to coast? If so, you haven’t been paying attention to some 50,000 districts in the United States, many of which provide limited information on their finances to the taxpayers that fund them.
A civil grand jury report from San Mateo County, Calif., highlighted this issue recently, focusing on basic leadership, meeting information and financial data of the 23 independent special districts within the county’s borders. The report, titled "Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Information," concluded that 15 of the 23 districts had "substantial inadequacies in revealing information regarding finances, staff and board of directors' or commissioner contacts and board of commission minutes." Together, the San Mateo County districts -- which deal with such topics as sanitation, water, fire protection, harbors, health care and conservation -- collected about $100 million in property taxes in fiscal year 2013.
By the way, the grand jury report to which we just referred is just one example of the kind of fascinating information that can be found using these frequently overlooked resources. For more information on the civil grand jury process in California, for example, we suggest checking in on the California Grand Jurors' Association website. The site provides a great deal of information about California’s unusual process of creating grand jury panels each year to keep an eye on local government in each of the state’s 58 counties. The site also has a blog that covers many of the grand jury findings as reports are released.
One of the ways in which the work of police departments is frequently measured is by analysis of response times. But benchmarking with statistics from various cities is perilous. Police departments measure information in different ways and so head-on-head comparisons can lead to false conclusions and potentially bad management and policy. When, for example, should a city start measuring response time: when the call first comes into the dispatch center or when a patrol car receives the information? There's also a wide variety among cities about which calls get tracked and evaluated for response times. Some cities evaluate only response times for calls that are clear emergencies, while others include less serious requests for help. Detroit, for example, looked like it had horrifically bad response times, in some part because they were measuring responses to a far higher percentage of calls than do most other cities.
Though public leaders continue to boast about response times, the difficulties in comparing them have led data-savvy police administration officials to look at them with a wary eye. As Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina told the Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy" last year: “Response time is more of a political maneuver than a law-enforcement statistic. I don’t know who pays attention to it anymore. For most of us involved in police administration and management, it doesn’t mean anything. All sorts of things [like preserving evidence or preventing crime altogether by moving resources to high-crime areas] are far more important."
"Transparency is itself a paradox; with too much transparency, you get a haze of opacity. Those 30-page end user agreements we all agree to, but never read, are just one example of opacity through transparency." -- William Hoffman, head of data-development at the World Economic Forum.
It may be true that we frequently curse at the Global Positioning System in our car (particularly when it instructs us to take a right hand turn directly into the East River on a non-existent road). But we’ve long been fans of the many uses to which these technological marvels can be put. Here’s a new one. As the New York undertakes massive work on large local bridges, the city has installed a GPS system that tracks construction vessels. This should benefit other boaters who can see, online, where these vessels are located and change their own routes to take them into account. This can be a difficult task considering that over 130 vessels could be in the Tappan Zee Bridge work zone alone during peak hours.
According to CivSource, “the GPS system is part of a broader initiative to keep New York’s many waterways clear of confusion during the summer season. In addition to GPS tracking, the state is instituting an… alarm system to monitor barge movement and safety zones around mooring conditions.”
Managers Reading List. Long-time readers will recall that we had a running feature, for some years, in which we passed along book recommendations from readers that were related, in any way, to government management. (One of the most-recommended was Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince). We’re still interesting in adding to that rather long list, and invite you to send in any thoughts you might have
Meanwhile, we'll add our own recommendation -- An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris. The historically accurate novel centers around the Dreyfus affair in France in the late 19th Century told from the point of view of a supremely ethical French officer, Georges Picquart, who endangered his own future in government when he discovered compelling evidence that Captain Alfred Dreyfus -- brutally exiled to Devil's Island -- was not guilty of espionage. Inspiring for whistleblowers everywhere.
If you’re hungry for more suggestions, we want to remind you about the enjoyable recommended book list that is annually put out by the Legislative Research Bureau in Wisconsin. These books are chosen by Wisconsin legislators and legislative staff. It's easy to find connections with state legislative topics, but these are far from traditional management/government books.
Paroled prisoners committing crimes again is far from inevitable, according to a new report from the Council of State Governments, which looked at improving recidivism rates in a number of states. But even if a target of zero is unreachable, the report indicates that “certain programs and approaches to supervision can change some people’s criminal behaviors and help them succeed upon release from incarceration.”
According to the report, a number of states have lowered recidivism rates over the last few years, with the two largest changes in North Carolina (-19.3 percent) and South Carolina (-17.9 percent).
Apparently, the approach that has had great impact in North Carolina is called justice reinvestment, which uses carefully analyzed data to permit policymakers and others to develop practical policies that generate cost savings. Then, a portion of those savings can be reinvested in correctional programs to further reduce recidivism.
Audits can make for pretty strong material for online articles. We regularly rely on them to help keep us posted about trends in government, as well as specific issues in cities and states about which we can write or research. So, here’s our complaint: It’s startling how many times an audit is referred to online, in a place that has capacity for hyperlinking, and yet there is no link to the original audit. Forget about us -- and the fact that this means we spend all kinds of time searching our way to the actual document. It feels to us like good audits are so frequently nuanced and detailed that giving the public the ability to get to the source is more than worthwhile. USA Today is frequently one exception, and we know there are others, so it can be done. Why don’t other publications join in?