B&G Report: The Right World Outlook, What School Lessons Are Missing, and the Risks of Inaccurate Data

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by | January 9, 2014
 

In the old days, auditors largely focused on just the numbers. But over the years, the practice of performance auditing – examining programs and policies to see how well they’re delivering promised results – has become a widely accepted government function. We’ve often written about the benefits of the effort. But are there places that are too small to avail themselves of this tool? That’s been the debate in Eugene, Ore., population 158,000. We know that many readers hail from smaller communities, and we’re curious to hear about experiences with, and thoughts about, using performance auditors in those places. Please share.

About three years ago, on December 19th, a 60 Minutes feature titled, “The Next Financial Meltdown” sent shock waves through cities and states. The piece seemed to predict that America’s localities were steadily jumping into an ocean of insolvency. By now, had 60 Minutes been accurate, we probably wouldn’t have seen the following in The Washington Post: “The state and local outlook for 2014 is the best it’s been in years, rating agencies say.”

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Our takeaway on this: Predictions at either end of the spectrum are inclined to turn out to be wrong. We think it’s much more sensible to think of the world as a pendulum timepiece than an alarm clock.

Nobody much likes the ever-increasing tuitions in state universities. But we’re seeing a trend of colleges instead hiking education fees in order to balance their books. We can’t help but wonder if there’s much of a difference between multiple fees and higher tuition. We were startled when we took a look at the office of the comptroller’s list of fees at the University of Illinois. The university has a: general activity fee; health service fee; athletic service fee; Redbird Arena Fee, Bone Student Center Fee, Campus Enhancement Fee, Recreation Facilities Fee, Instructional Support Fee, Grant-in-Aid fee, and a student to student grant fee.

For states, federal funds are a significant source of revenues. And those dollars have always felt a bit like free money to some. But as Utah’s audit office recently observed, they are far from manna pouring from heaven. “The large federal programs are extremely complex to administer, with extensive ‘red tape’ and detailed rules and reporting requirements,” said the audit report.

That’s a good point, but the part of the Utah report that really struck us was a warning that federal dollars aren’t just complicated to use – they may be hazardous to the state’s future fiscal health: As John Dougall, Utah state auditor wrote, “Given the recent partial federal shutdown and the continual budget turmoil in Congress, Utahns should consider the concerns raised by such a significant amount of funding dependent on a single source with such fiscal dysfunction.”

Maybe it’s just that we’ve spent the last quarter of a century devoted to state and local government. That is the kind of thing likely to create a bias. But we can’t describe how alarmed we were by a recent article in The Washington Post about public policy schools that made the point that most seem to pay minimal attention to the world in which we live. We’ll excerpt a couple of brief passages that troubled us: “With the exception of certain schools such as the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, most schools are concerned more with national and international policy than with local and state matters. . . Only 6 percent of the [Kennedy School’s] 2012 graduates went into local, regional or state-level government jobs.”

“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” – Jonas Salk

Congratulations to Michigan’s Department of Transportation for completing the first half of a bearing replacement project on the I-75 Zilwaukee Bridge, and getting all lanes running again, three weeks ahead of schedule.

You don’t hear that kind of news very frequently. More often, the story is of projects taking significantly longer than anticipated. We, ourselves, live not far from New York City’s planned 2nd Avenue Subway line. Work is underway now. The planning started in 1929.

But back to Michigan. We turned to the state’s DOT director, Kirk Steudle, to find out some of the keys to his project’s success. He pointed to an innovative contracting method called contract manager/general contractor (CMGC), which allows states to hire, and start working with a construction manager during the design phase of a project. “Using CMGC,” he explained, “we were able to select contractors for experience working on similar bridges, and get them on board early so we could work with them from design through construction. This boosted collaboration in the project almost from the beginning, allowing us to incorporate innovative and cost-saving construction methods and materials, such as the first use of disc bearings in Michigan and location of critical bridge components with ground-penetrating radar. Working together helped us identify potential hurdles and learn lessons early, smoothing the construction operation later. This project also was among the first in Michigan to use the e-Construction method, keeping design plans and communications almost exclusively electronic and saving money, paper and time.”

Work on the full project will pick up again in the spring.

Good data is the life’s blood of cities and states. As we’ve noted in this space, many times, it’s a pity how often these entities’ data capacity is more than a bit anemic. But to carry the metaphor one more step, it can be particularly frustrating when they get a data transfusion from the federal government, only to find out that the supply is tainted.

Such was apparently the case when communities in the northeast relied on Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps in the wake of Hurricane Sandy a little more than a year ago, according to a splendid piece of diligent reporting at ProPublica. According to that publication, “state, local and federal officials had been aware for years that the crucial maps of flood risks were inaccurate; some feared they understated the dangers in New York City’s low-lying areas.”

This mattered. When developers usually build new houses near water, they tend to rely on FEMA’s risk assessments. Similarly, businesses use that information in making their land-purchase decisions. There was an effort to modernize the maps in the mid-2000s, but FEMA chose, instead, to digitize the old flood maps instead of making them more accurate. Long-awaited improvements were made soon after Sandy hit. But we can’t help wonder what other critical, but less-than-accurate information is still being fed to states and localities.

The state of Georgia has been pushing the use of charter schools for over five years. It now has over 300 of them. One of the principles behind opening charter schools in Georgia was that they be given a fair amount of flexibility in exchange for a reasonably high level of accountability. And that makes sense. But as in so many other instances, there’s a gulf between promising oversight and actually delivering it.

A state auditor’s report made just this point focusing on supplemental funding provided by the state– almost $11 million a year. As The Telegraph reported, “A new performance audit requested by state legislators found scant evidence that the state funding . . . is doing any good.”

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