Management & Labor

Detroit’s Fixable Fiscal Problems, Evaluators under Pressure and the Impact of Multitasking

Plus: The importance of parks and more management news

Evaluators in cities, counties and states frequently attempt to shed light on issues that already garner strong opinions. But how often are the evaluators pushed to take a particular point of view? Looks like a fair amount, according to a random survey of over 2,500 American Evaluation Association members, which states: "Overall, 42 percent of the respondents had encountered misrepresentation pressure, with 70 percent of this subgroup having faced it on more than one occasion." Not surprisingly, the pressure was mostly intended to make things look better than the evaluator originally believed.

Based on personal experience, the kinds of men and women who take jobs as evaluators appear to have great integrity and pride in their work, so we don’t think the pressure frequently translates into falsified evaluations. But with that said, the fact that this many people think they can manipulate the evaluation process is bad news indeed.

We live in a world where many of us gather a great deal of information from websites. It is, however, a troubling world. A few days back, a close friend who was on the road called from a parking lot to see if we could get her the address for the Columbia, S.C., Department of Parks and Recreation. We found it on the city’s website within moments and gave it to her. Our friend’s report: “The street was under construction, and there appeared to be no way to actually access the street that the building was supposed to be on.”

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She called the department and got the right address. We called the department and were told that the building had moved last year.

This isn’t a big deal, but if a local agency wants to garner any credibility with the community -- and draw people to its website -- it’s probably a good idea to get its own address right.

Why don’t state and local governments follow up more on the actual results of a program to see if it’s delivered as promised? In our experience, there’s more and more careful goalsetting going on to get legislatures and city councils to dole out cash to programs. But all too often, there’s a bundle of uncertainty as to whether the goals set were really smart ones.

We began to think about this after reading a blog post that complains that the predictions made by business lobbyists about the huge problems that will follow new regulations are often overstated. But without follow-up, it’s hard to differentiate between exaggerations and the truth.

Over the last year, the Mayor's Office of Operations in New York City has been working to make the city's performance-measurement efforts more integrated, user-friendly, technologically up-to-date and useful. We've watched the attempted transformation from the vantage point of an advisory committee that was set up to discuss what's been right and wrong about the presentation of performance information in the Big Apple and how it can be improved.

To see the advances the city has made in performance reporting, take a look at the most recent report, which came out at the end of February. Make sure you have a little time on your hands, as it’s rather expansive.

The most important change? There's far more emphasis on goals and targets -- a real effort to get agencies to connect their indicators to what they want to accomplish.

“Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not so.” -- Galileo Galilei

Multitasking has lots of meanings. At one end of the spectrum are staffers who write work-related e-mails while participating in a conference call. At the other are people who interrupt both of those tasks to quickly proofread a document and interrupt that in order to play a game of Solitaire and so on.

What's more, we've noticed (and let us know if you've observed the same trend) that younger people report being multitaskers with pride, while the 40-plus crowd often criticizes the phenomenon.

Given the variety of types of multitasking, we're a little wary of studies that show how effective or ineffective it is. But we've come across one, in the Harvard Business Review, that does shed some light on the issue. The study had thousands of individuals track their actions every day with a software tool and came to the conclusion that: "The frenetic modern worker switches tasks hundreds of times a day, on average (not including smartphone distractions). And the more workers switch, the less they accomplish.”

The Minnesota legislature is debating whether or not to mandate staffing levels for nurses in state hospitals. The bill in question would require medical centers to put in place staffing standards set by professional societies or a group appointed by the state legislature.

Hospitals argue this would drive up the cost of care and deprive them of the necessary discretion to make the most appropriate decisions about their nursing staff. But legislators fear that hospitals’ efforts to cut costs can lead to understaffing of nurses, which in turn makes the hospital a less safe, less comfortable place.

We're not going to weigh in on one side or the other. But we do have a piece of advice for legislators: Before making any decisions, this is just the kind of issue that’s made for a cost-benefit analysis. Somebody needs to clearly know -- not just posit opinions about -- the actual benefits and costs of maintaining nursing levels at a pre-set amount. Otherwise, the debate is just the type that makes citizens mistrust legislators.

Saving gas hardly seems like the kind of budget-cutting activity big, complicated governments would concern themselves with. But since many own large fleets of trucks, cars, snow plows and so on, fuel savings can add up to substantial dollars. What are some of the best approaches? We looked back to the January 2012 issue of Government Fleet and came up with this short check list:

  • Consolidating fuel purchases
  • Direct-billing user departments for fuel
  • Using reverse auction for fuel purchases
  • Locking in fuel prices
  • Installing aftermarket products to reduce fuel consumption

As Shakespeare famously wrote in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” It’s easy when you look at the hideous fiscal condition of Detroit to see lots of problems in the stars, but there are issues in the city that could certainly be fixed.

Case in point: From a riveting story in the Detroit News: “Tax bills are frequently sent to the wrong address, and homeowner exemptions that dramatically lower bills are granted without proof of eligibility, a recent audit found.”

In addition, “nearly half of the city’s taxable parcels are delinquent on 2011 bills,” according to the newspaper.

With local newspapers folding or shrinking all around us, we just wanted to point out that if it weren’t for the investigative capacity of newspapers like the Detroit News, analysis like that mentioned in the previous item would take place far less frequently. We know we’re biased -- a lot of our friends and one of us have worked at a big city paper -- but the work of newspapers can sometimes be just as important as that of government offices.

It’s somewhat easier to cut budget dollars from parks than from police, fire, sanitation or other essential services. And there’s little question that when your house is burning down, you’d rather have a trained firefighter on the scene than a park ranger. That said, we’ve long feared that city councils have underestimated the importance of parks.

Our thoughts are eloquently expressed by author and columnist Jay Walljasper on Citiwire.net. We recommend the piece, which contains the following excerpts:

  • “Parks are … the literal common ground of our democracy, where people of all backgrounds can realize how much we share in common.”
  • “The park is one place where everyone counts. That experience is critically important for lower- and middle-income people to feel a continuing sense of possibility for the future of their families.”
  • “Whether at sports facilities, beaches, trails or public events, the park is central to people’s sense of community and belonging.”
  • “More than just pleasant places to play, parks are places to learn. Even beyond environmental education, parks are an ideal setting for classes, workshops, and experiential learning of all kinds.”

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