B&G Report: Useless Opinions, Outsourcing Outcomes, and Leslie Knope-Inspired Awards

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For a long time, we’ve assumed that supplemental appropriations -- the provision of additional money made partway through the budget year when the approved budget fails to meet expenses -- were a sign of imprecise budgeting, potentially due to purposefully understated expenditures. But we’ve spent some time lately looking into the topic and have begun to recognize that there are lots of reasons why supplemental allocations can be unavoidable (like the remarkable deluge of snow this year). Moreover, apparently some entities use supplementals as a conservative way of budgeting, leaving some available cash out of the budget that will only be spent if necessary. We’d welcome thoughts on the topic. Does your entity use lots of supplemental appropriations during the fiscal year? And if so, are the supplementals being used for good reasons?

It’s bad enough when cities, counties and states forgo soliciting public input when making significant plans that can potentially change the lives of citizens. But what do you think of a state that opens a 30-day public comment period for a plan a week after the plan was already finished and sent in to the federal agency that needed to approve it?

This is just what happened with a disaster plan established by the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "What's the point of asking for public input for a plan when none of it will actually be used to formulate the plan?" Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit smart-growth advocacy group, was quoted as saying in the newspaper.

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This is like passing a law requiring citizens to put on seat belts immediately after they’ve parked their car.

In Iowa, one of the audit office’s major responsibilities is to provide an oversight function for local governments. But how much help do the localities actually need, and how frequently do they get it? In the past, state law mandated that cities with more than 2,000 people have an annual audit. For those with 700 to 2,000 people, audits occurred every four years. Smaller communities didn’t have to have an audit at all, unless they received and expended over $500,000 of federal funds.

Does that make sense? Isn’t it possible that some places with less than 2,000 people may merit a more regular audit? It sure does, and the legislature changed the rules accordingly. The audits are now risk-based instead of population-based. From now on, cities over 2,000 get an audit every year. But cities under 2,000 with budgeted expenditures over $1 million for two consecutive years get an “annual examination,” which looks at the financial processes of the city including internal controls.

“We tend to overvalue the things we can measure, and undervalue the things we cannot.” -- John Hayes, the chief marketing officer of American Express

The question of outsourcing is one that carries arms full of political baggage. Employee groups tend to be opposed, while small government zealots want to outsource every government function. Ultimately, one policy prevails -- frequently without any solid data to back up one position or another.

That’s a hazardous approach to government management as was recently demonstrated in a report by Minnesota 2020, a progressive, non-partisan think tank in Saint Paul. Apparently, many school districts in Minnesota have reacted to tough economic times by outsourcing school buses. This is supposed to offer school districts financial savings while maintaining safety.

But consider the study’s findings: It turns out that fewer outsourced buses passed Minnesota Highway Patrol safety inspections than the district-run buses (86 percent compared to 93 percent). As for the financial end of the deal, “the average expenditure per pupil per square mile was higher for outsources ($7.37) than for in-house districts $3.97).

Was there any way for the districts to have foreseen these outcomes? Maybe not. But if we were running the show, we’d rarely allow any service to be outsourced without a guarantee that a study like this one would follow -- and then appropriate actions would be taken.

We know that we’re far behind the times, but we’ve just begun watching the TV show "Parks and Recreation." It’s a comedy set in the parks department of a smallish city in Indiana. Obviously, the whole thing is played for laughs, and so there’s a natural predisposition to make some of the town employees look pretty silly. But at least a handful of the characters (notably the female lead, Leslie Knope, played by comedian Amy Poehler) have a sense of the nobility of the work they’re doing and a willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty to serve the town’s citizens.

Named after the fictional character, the Emerging Local Government Leaders Network offers a lighthearted “Knope of the Week” award to recognize public or private officials who go “…above and beyond" the call of duty. (Governing actually won a Knope last year.)

Two thumbs up to the show.

How much do you trust your state government? The Gallup Poll recently released a 50-state survey that asked citizens that question. The range was enormous. Some 77 percent of respondents in North Dakota had a great or fair amount of trust in their government, while in Illinois, it was only 28 percent.

We can only guess the reasons for the results. In North Dakota’s case, it’s probably much easier to trust a sparsely populated state that’s rolling in money. And in Illinois, of course, four of the governors since 1961 have spent some time in prison. The next two most trusted states were Wyoming and Utah, while the next two least trusted states were Rhode Island and Maine.

We think it’s kind of dangerous trying to come up with a crystal clear correlation between states that are likely to be trusted and those that aren’t, but the study pointed to a variety of variables like population (more populous equals less trustable), economic health, political ethos and historical factors.

In our most recent “Smart Management” column, we wrote about the various flaws and risks in using email. One notion we neglected came in from a transportation official in the Northeast. He wrote, “You didn’t mention how inefficient it is to attempt to collaborate on policy making or project development using traditional email.” We think he makes an excellent point. When we consider how tricky it is arranging for a telephone interview via email, we can’t begin to imagine developing a complex policy with communications conducted primarily through the ether.

The question of whether an activity should be centralized or decentralized rambles on and on through the decades -- and there’s no good answer. But it has always seemed to us that no matter what level actually performs a function, it’s a good idea to have data and oversight conducted centrally. Consider, for example, an audit in Los Angeles County that discovered a backlog of hundreds of complaints about nursing homes, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

According to the report, as of mid-March there were over 3,000 open investigations, including nearly 1,000 that have been ongoing for more than a couple of years. Until the auditor stepped in, there was no way for the county to become aware of this problem as there was no “central management of the investigations." That, in turn, made it difficult to come up with a path to reducing these backlogs.

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