Better Government

The 3 Flavors of Corruption

While serving as mayor of Kansas City, I was investigated by several entities, including the Missouri Ethics Commission, for allegedly using city staff and property to campaign for a light rail initiative that was on the ballot. I was eventually exonerated, but only after a great deal of bad press and time spent by my staff and me supplying documents, answering interrogatories and being interviewed by various investigators.

In my previous work as a government auditor, I had frequently dealt with scandal and impropriety, but I had never envisioned myself as the star of the show. This was a new and sobering experience, and I came away from it shocked at my former naïveté. Now, when I see media reports of apparent ethical lapses involving public officials, I tend to group them into three broad categories. READ MORE

Why Loneliness Should Matter to Governments

Humans are pack animals. It’s bred into our genes. As John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick wrote in their 2008 book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, early humans “were more likely to survive when they stuck together” and “evolution reinforced the preference for strong human bonds.”

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue. READ MORE

With Big Data Comes Bigger Goals

I once had a police chief tell me that there was nothing that he and his department could do about overall crime or citizen safety. He wasn’t alone in his thinking. When I started working in performance auditing decades ago, getting government organizations to accept responsibility, even for outcomes directly related to their own missions, was difficult. It was seen as unfair, for example, to hold an employment training agency accountable for its graduates getting jobs because so many other social and economic factors contributed to that outcome.

In the last few years, however, things have changed. I now hear agency directors and elected executives talking about “moving the needle on population-level outcomes,” such as reducing the incidence of childhood obesity or, more broadly, increasing the overall health of a community. READ MORE

Lessons from the Grateful Dead on Replacing Workers with Technology

In the foreword to David Dodd’s The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, Robert Hunter, the band’s “lyricist in residence,” wrote that the song “Uncle John’s Band” represented “the first lyric I wrote with the aid of that newfangled gadget, the cassette tape recorder. I taped the band playing the arrangement and was able to score lyrics at leisure rather than scratch away hurriedly at rehearsals, waiting for particular sections to come around again.”

What Hunter was describing, of course, was an improvement in productivity resulting from the application of new technology. Productivity is usually measured in terms of the labor cost per unit of production, and in most cases improvement is achieved by using new technology to reduce head count. For instance, a steel mill that once employed 10,000 workers produces the same tonnage with only a thousand employees, bank tellers are replaced by ATMs and elevator operators become a thing of the past. But in Hunter’s application of new technology, no one’s position was eliminated. It’s an example of what has been called “the quartet effect” at work. READ MORE

Want More Crime with That Burger?

I first encountered Bob Crutchfield in 1967 at basketball tryouts at Thiel College. He went on to get a Ph.D. in sociology at Vanderbilt and a professorship at the University of Washington, where he has been for many years. Recently, he summarized his long career in the book Get a Job: Labor Markets, Economic Opportunity and Crime. It examines the relationship between two things that public officials care a great deal about: jobs and crime.

The book is an unusual and interesting read because it is based not only on Crutchfield’s own academic research but also on his lived experience as a young black man growing up in Pittsburgh’s low-income Hill District and then working as a probation and parole officer in county and state government. READ MORE