The numerous ways in which states and localities compare costs to results go by many names, including "cost-benefit analysis." Regardless of the terminology, we're convinced that the idea, at heart, is a good one. As such, we were kind of disappointed to read that a proposed casino gambling bill in Massachusetts calls for just such an analysis — but only after the bill allowing casino gambling has already passed. "Many of us have been advocating a real cost-benefit analysis for years," former state Sen. Sue Tucker wrote in a local op-ed. "Except this study takes place after the slots are already installed, and it is paid for by casino revenues. Reminiscent, perhaps, of the studies funded by tobacco companies which proved that cigarettes are harmless."
Once a year, we drive from New York City to Madison, Wis., to drop our daughter off at the University of Wisconsin. (Although this is her senior year, so we're done with this particular series of journeys.) Interstate 80, which goes through a number of states between here and there, is the main drag for our trip. We have an observation and a recommendation. The observation is that there's always at least one instance in which the highway narrows to one lane for miles and miles, in the middle of which is a relatively small roadwork project. As we sit in our car for many long minutes or even hours, we ponder the reason for this. That was the observation.
Here's the recommendation: We believe that taxpayers tend to be much more patient with delays, whether in transportation or elsewhere, if they understand why the delays are taking place. How hard, or expensive, would it be to install some electronic signage explaining precisely the reason for the delay? In this instance, all we'd really need to understand is why it takes so many miles of closed road for what appears to be one small repair spot. We're not doubting that the DOTs in Wisconsin, Ohio and other places have a good reason. Why not share it with their customers? Take a cue from retail stores undergoing renovation: Put up a sign apologizing for the mess and explaining what's going on.
Road safety seems like it should be one of the easiest things to measure. Counting the number of accidents on a given roadway doesn't seem to be so hard. And neither does accounting for the impact of those accidents, in terms of deaths or injuries. Well, counting the deceased may not be difficult, but it turns out that there's a lot of room for error in terms of the severity of the injuries, according to Peter Savolainen, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. While new mathematical approaches are improving matters, there are still a lot of issues to be dealt with. Among them, according to Savolainen:
- The quality of information gathered tends to be pretty thorough for drivers, but is somewhat less so for passengers.
- Details are often omitted about significant factors like occupant age, gender and the use of safety equipment.
- Only about half of traffic crashes are reported, and since the unreported ones tend to be less severe, that can lead DOT officials to see only a partial story.
Curiously, it also appears that accident reports tend to indicate that females are more severely injured than males. Perhaps there's a reason this is true. But it would seem, at least to us, more likely that it has to do with some kind of built-in bias on the part of the folks creating the data.
Because we think it's such a critical part of government management, we've repeatedly explored questions of what people think about their bosses and the way they manage. With that topic in mind, we just came across a very sensible definition of a good manager. It's based on data-mining research released by Google earlier this spring; we just picked it up from the Farnam Street blog: "What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees' lives and careers."
We predict that "risk assessment" is going to be a very overused cliché in the very near future. It's far from a new idea, of course, but the utility of risk assessment in a wide swath of disciplines seems to be increasingly acknowledged in the new economy — whatever exactly that turns out to mean. Consider, for example, the concept of risk assessment of offenders in the realm of criminal justice. It goes far beyond the severity of the most recent crime or the length of a rap sheet. According to research conducted at the University of Cincinnati, it "refers to appropriate and effective assessment for actuarial risks and needs of participating offenders, followed up by good case plans for individual offenders. In other words, certain offender characteristics — like marital status, language ability and reading level — contribute to the likelihood that an offender will return (or not) to criminal activity. The treatment program personnel need to be able to accurately judge these risks and take the risks into consideration when devising a case plan for an individual."
A conundrum. The University of Michigan recently released a survey showing that a little more than half — 56 percent — of the leaders in unionized localities thought the unions had had a negative effect on their jurisdiction's fiscal affairs. As might be expected, the press release accompanying the survey focused on the close majority. But what really interests us is the flip side of the coin. What about the large percentage of unionized localities for which unions were characterized as having positive or neutral impact? What makes them different? We'd be particularly curious to know about the 13 percent of respondents who indicated that unions were a positive fiscal force. Seems like a great project for somebody.
Adjust this quote from 1954 for inflation: "It's a terribly hard job to spend a billion dollars and get your money's worth." — George M. Humphrey
Artful Choice is a blog written by Maria Konnikova about the psychology of decision-making. Not so long ago, Konnikova shared some powerful management advice, framed by stories about Sherlock Holmes. One notion that really struck us was the idea that government managers should be aware of things that don't happen in addition to things that do. If, for example, there's an unexplained decline in the number of fires in a community, that's just as worthy of focus as an increase. As she wrote:
"It is precisely on this distinction that Holmes bases his insight in 'Silver Blaze.' When Inspector Gregory asks, 'Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?' Holmes responds, 'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.' But, protests the inspector, 'The dog did nothing in the night-time.' To which Holmes delivers the punch line: 'That was the curious incident.'
"For Holmes, the absence of barking is the turning point of the case: the dog must have known the intruder. Otherwise, he would have made a fuss. "For us, the absence of barking is something that is all too easy to forget. We don't even dismiss things that aren't there; we don't remark on them to begin with. But often, they are just as telling and just as important — and would make just as much difference to our decisions — as their present counterparts."
Following the Sept. 7 debate among Republican presidential candidates, observers on the left and the right had a variety of opinions about the debate's impact on viewers. Here's what we thought: It was fascinating to watch Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts spar and thrust. They both seemed able to make strong arguments for the case that their state was by far the better of the two at job creation, employment and so on. Obviously, they couldn't both be right. But if we eradicated any knowledge we personally had before the debate, it would have been nearly impossible to tell who was right and who was wrong. That's why we think it's so important to have well-publicized, fair, independent data about critical topics like these.
On our soapbox: As residents of New York City, we were evacuated in the wake of Hurricane Irene. It was an inconvenience for us, and it was a significant dislocation for others. That said, we wanted to take a few words to say that we're kind of sick and tired of hearing that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his staff overreacted to the storm. Maybe we're just conservative folks in this way, but the option of getting people out of the way of potential tragedy seems to far outweigh the option of making life convenient. The mayor had no way of knowing the storm would become less severe than anticipated. And until meteorologists become truly prescient, we'd far rather have our city managed with more precautions than fewer ones when it comes to matters of life or death. We'd be sincerely curious to hear from people who disagree. We've sure heard a lot of complaining in supermarket lines about the mayor's approach.