We're writing this item moments after a conversation with a colleague at Governing. We mentioned in passing that the best way to get us to work harder was to praise our work. (Even false praise can be effective.) When we hear effusive, positive comments, we don't relax. Rather, we start to worry about how we can avoid disappointing anyone with the next project. That got us thinking: What's the primary motivator for B&G readers working in government? What gets you to work harder? Is it praise, like for us? Or are you a "prove it with a paycheck" kind of person? Or maybe you work hardest when you can immediately see real-world outcomes of your successes?

What's your best motivator? E-mail us and let us know!

Policymakers often seem to put a great deal of faith in the sanctity of surveys. For those who are a bit dubious of this kind of data — or open to that stance — we strongly recommend you take a look at this excerpt from the television program, "Yes Minister." It's funny and it suggests how easily survey results can be rigged.

Original link, via Genuine Evaluation

Demand-based pricing has always seemed like a good idea to us. In fact, even though it would have cost us money, we were disappointed when the New York state Legislature derailed one form of it in New York City — congestion-based pricing for automobiles.

Starting today, if all goes as planned, people in San Francisco will be participating in a fascinating experiment that has the potential to influence the way managers think of this kind of effort. It's called SFpark, and the idea is to adjust the amounts charged at parking meters with a formula designed to charge more when demand is high and less when demand is low, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Prices in the city, based on demand, are likely going to range between 25 cents and $6 per hour. They could go even higher on special occasions, like street fairs — potentially as high as $18 an hour. We'll keep tabs on this, and let you know how it seems to be working out.

Covering public-sector failures has always seemed like a good way to improve government all around. Among other things, these missteps can show managers where the landmines are before they explode. A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review takes this line of thought a step further. It argues that unexamined successes can actually impede leadership learning, too.

The piece, by Francesca Gino and Gary P. Pisano, says that "we all know that learning from failure is one of the most important capacities for people and companies to develop. Yet surprisingly, learning from success can present even greater challenges."

The authors point to three big reasons why they believe this is so:

  • Fundamental attribution errors, which lead people to assume that success is inevitably tied to individual talents and current models, without taking note of "environmental factors and random events."
  • Overconfidence bias, which makes people believe they don't need to change the approach that proved successful in the past.
  • The failure-to-ask-why syndrome, which is "the tendency not to investigate the causes of good performance systematically."

A quote worth posting on your wall: "Keep in mind that neither success nor failure is ever final." — Roger W. Babson

Maybe we've finally gone over the edge in our frustration about bad data that's to be found everywhere, potentially influencing policymakers and likely impacting taxpayers' minds. We mentioned such problems at both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in the previous B&G Report. This time around, it's the Los Angeles Times, which reported that "the Bureau of Labor Statistics added a new category this month for incorporated self-employed workers. The new numbers reveal that 14 million Americans are self-employed, up from the 9 million that the old data indicated worked for themselves. Many workers find themselves making their own jobs once they become frustrated with employers' reticence to hire."

When we first came across that clip, we wondered whether we should be exploring the best ways for cities and states to be attracting the self-employed if, indeed, that was a category of jobs that's showing such tremendous growth. Then the magnitude of the change started to seem more extreme than could possibly make sense. So we checked into the matter and found that the BLS has collected data on both incorporated and unincorporated self-employment since 1989. However, starting in 2011, the BLS began to release the two numbers combined to measure self-employment. The newspaper account simply compares total self-employment in 2011 with unincorporated self-employment in 2010, which is not a fair comparison.

Questions about the benefits of consolidating school districts are really interesting. Much of the evidence accumulated points to the idea that it can be cost-effective for smaller districts to consolidate (although less so for larger districts), according to a recent National Conference of State Legislatures issue brief.

The most interesting thing in the brief is the fact that this currently hot topic doesn't relate to something new. The nation has been consolidating school districts for most of the past century. As the issue brief points out, "The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that in the 2008-09 school year there were 100,713 public schools in 13,976 school districts serving 49.3 million students. That compares to an estimated 271,000 schools in nearly 130,000 school districts in 1920 serving 23.6 million students."

Best practices. Anyone who has been reading the B&G Report over the years knows that we're wary of this phrase. Too often, it connotes a "one-size-fits-all" approach to solving the problems of cities, counties and states. We've recently been in touch with Bruce Waltuck, who has spent much of his professional career in the federal Department of Labor, and most recently at HHS, where he co-created and managed the Labor Department's quality and process improvement initiative, and served as senior adviser for process improvement at SAMHSA.

In a phone conversation, he provided a solid rationale for the argument that the search for best practices can be a problematic enterprise. Waltuck noted the hazards of simply adopting another organization's best practice without considering how their own organization differs — and why those differences might stand in the way of that particular approach succeeding.

Waltuck also says that managers and leaders in government and other organizations often make the mistake of trying to solve a problem as if it were a machine that could be fixed merely by applying prescribed knowledge and resources. But he says that doesn't lead to success in a complex environment, in which it's necessary to adapt to individuals' values and beliefs. In short, instead of a simple fix, or the importation of someone's "best practice," leadership needs to address the underlying patterns of belief, thinking and behavior that must change to allow improvement. No two departments, no two cities, no two states, are necessarily going to find the same approach successful.

A website worth checking out: The relatively new data.oregon.gov site went live just a few weeks ago. It "lets visitors interact with state records, create their own charts, graphs, calendars and maps, and save them online. Visitors may even suggest new 'datasets' for displaying information not yet available on the site," said a state press release.

Take a look and let us know what you think.

Public Civility Corner: Kudos to the National League of Cities for its new report, Beyond Civility; From Public Engagement to Problem Solving. It addresses the need to deal with the kind of unhelpful public discourse that we've been highlighting in the B&G Report for many months now.

A brief excerpt from the introduction to the report:

"Democracy is a messy process that rightfully engenders passion as people debate the direction of the nation. As local leaders, we must do what we can to listen to the public's concerns, respond accordingly and play a lead role in setting the tone and culture for civic engagement. We must be open and inclusive to new ideas and new points of view and not shut out those that may disagree with us.

"But this does not mean that we must tolerate all forms of discussion. We should not tolerate language and actions that shut others out of the system or prevent people from taking part in the democratic process. We must not allow ideas that will close off our community and refuse to respect the rights, thoughts and actions of others."

You betcha!