Better Government

A Mayor's Advice for Avoiding Another Baltimore

Nearly every city in the country is vulnerable to the kind of unrest that Baltimore has experienced this week. The underlying forces that led to that city's riot are national in scope, and ours is a nation born in rebellion with a long history of violent civil disturbances.

Riots in America are not rare. From the New York City draft riots during the Civil War to those in cities across the country after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles over police brutality, some Americans have responded violently when the injustice they feel appears to have gone too far. READ MORE

The Fantasy World of Financial Reporting

The rules that governments work under have little to do with reality. During an accounting class I took in the early 1980s, the professor explained methods for calculating and recording business depreciation. Being a government guy, I asked him how those costs were reflected on the financial statements of a government. He told me they weren’t and that it didn’t make sense to try to calculate depreciation on the Statue of Liberty. I thought his explanation was absurd, and a short time later the Statue of Liberty got more than $250 million in repairs.

There was finally an attempt to correct this ridiculous situation in 1999. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) required for the first time that governments report as assets roads, bridges, dams and other structures, along with related depreciation or preservation costs. READ MORE

The Most Important Question in Government: Where's the Money?

“Where’s the money?” While that’s the second question in government, it’s also the one that really matters most. The debates that fuel elections and the legislative process are usually about the first question: “What shall we do?” But the answers to that are largely irrelevant if you can’t find the money to pay for what you want to do.

Financial crises are a perennial and perhaps endemic feature of democratic government, in part because so few public officials want to make this connection between money and the policies they advocate. Lois Scott, Chicago’s chief financial officer and the leader of the Municipal CFO Forum, echoes this theme. When a public official says, for example, “I’m for job creation,” Scott wonders, “Who’s opposed to job creation?” Anyone can talk about what government should do. The critical issue is how we will find the money to get these things done. That issue is the central theme of a new memoir by Richard Ravitch, former lieutenant governor of New York and co-chair, with Paul Volcker, of the State READ MORE

States Recognizing the Value of New Americans

In their 2009 book Immigrant, Inc., Richard Herman and Robert Smith include this quote from a 1953 report by the President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization: “The richest regions are those with the highest proportion of recent immigrants. ... Their industry, their skills and their enterprise were major factors in the economic development that has made these regions prosperous.”

If anything, that proposition is even truer now. The immigration reforms of 1965 significantly increased the possibilities for non-Europeans to enter the United States. The result has been a surge of talented, well educated immigrants from places like China and India. By the 2000 Census, immigrants accounted for nearly half of all of this country’s scientists and engineers with doctoral degrees. READ MORE

The Benefits of a Better Town-and-Gown Relationship

A pervasive trend in city government is the creation of the position of chief innovation officer. The establishment of these offices is a recognition by city leaders that institutionalizing a focus on cultivating new approaches to improving performance will likely produce more and better ones than if it were simply left to chance. Some innovation offices will perform better than others, but I’ll bet that they prove to be more than a fad.

In that vein, perhaps the next cool thing in city halls ought to be the “HERO” -- the higher education relations officer. I got the idea that city governments ought to create a formal position focused on the strategic use of their colleges and universities from David Birdsell, dean of the City University of New York’s Baruch College School of Public Affairs. As Birdsell reminds us, colleges and universities are major assets to any city, bringing in students, purchasing goods and services, sometimes attracting substantial research dollars, and usually contributing substantially to the arts and cultural life. And often they are among the city’s top employers. READ MORE