Sitting just a few feet away from our desks, on the edge of a shelf, is a bookmark that says, "Baltimore: The City That Reads." It was given to us as a memento in the early '90s by then-mayor Kurt Schmoke. We occasionally glance at it, and while we don't necessarily believe that Baltimore residents are more likely to read than other folks, the mantra pleases us.

We bring this up in light of California Gov. Jerry Brown's mandate that state agencies no longer purchase coffee mugs, tote bags, t-shirts and other so-called swag. The governor claims that these kinds of things cost the state some $7.5 million from 2007 to 2010, according to the Sacramento Bee. In fact, the Bee put together a video display of some of these swag items:

So here's our question. Does this swag have any value? Or are they just silly expenses? We've got to believe that the folks ordering the coffee mugs and so on don't think they're throwing their money away. Tell us what you think.

This doesn't make sense to us. On a regular basis, we see articles that talk about tens of millions of Americans who are going hungry. We've even come across some that refer to 50 million Americans who are starving. We think some of these figures may come from a misuse of USDA statistics. But assuming the enormous numbers we see are remotely right, there's something we don't understand. Just 67 percent of Americans who were eligible for food stamps in 2008 actually signed up, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data compiled in a recent report from the Center for American Progress. Maine had the highest participation at 94 percent and Wyoming at 46 percent. So what's happening here? Are there many people who are eligible for food stamps who don't really need them? Are there many people are going to bed hungry because they haven't figured out how to use a safety net that's already in place? Something else?

Here's a quote to remember: "If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are 425 elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you." — Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

An interesting factoid from Madison: As demonstrations began in Wisconsin about the way the state compensates its employees, we were a bit nervous. Big bunches of people can sometimes do scary things. And with our daughter going to college just blocks from the state Capitol, this was personal. Then she pointed out to us that the Capitol police and the University of Wisconsin police were hardly inclined to set off any kind of violent ruckus with the demonstrators. These men and women, after all, are likely in agreement with the people with picket signs, as they too are having their rights to collective bargaining challenged. (By the way, the police unions are having real problems with this one; some of their members have been exempted from the changes, while the couple we've named have not.)

Many government websites offer the opportunity to send questions to "general mailboxes." At first blush, this seems like a great way to engender citizen involvement. But our own personal experience has left us entirely disappointed. We haven't done any kind of scientific research into how effective these are, but over the last year or so, we've periodically left these kinds of messages for a variety of governments and associations. And we haven't gotten one single response. Not one.

Depression following birth — postpartum depression — can become a serious medical problem for afflicted women. As such, it can wind up costing states a fair amount of Medicaid dollars. In 2006, New Jersey leaders decided to try to control this particular portion of the state's health-care bill. They established a system for ensuring that health care professionals would educate women and families about this problem. It was also the first state to mandate screening for all mothers who recently gave birth. Other states saw this as a model program and decided to follow suit.

But according to a new study published in Health Affairs magazine, "Although laudable in intent, these efforts had no measurable effect on the initiation of mental health treatment after childbirth or on the receipt of follow up or continued care, among continuously enrollee Medicaid recipients."

Maybe there are other benefits, and maybe there were some flaws in this study. We don't know. The lesson in this, for us, is simple: You never really know whether an innovation is effective until you've actually measured the results.

When elected officials show even a token sign that they're willing to share the pain of a tough economy with everyone else, we think that sends a good signal to frustrated taxpayers — even if it doesn't really save a lot of money. For example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in early January, soon after he had taken office, that he intended to take a 5 percent pay cut along with five top aides and the lieutenant governor.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Washington, D.C.'s Council Chairman Kwame Brown. He recently decided that he would give up his rented luxury SUV, which had been costing city taxpayers more than $2,000 per month. This was actually the second car the city ordered for him. He didn't care for the colors in the first one, and as of this writing, it was still sitting in the city fleet, while efforts were made to renegotiate the lease. According to the Washington Post, Brown apologized "for the disruption this has caused." Even though he's taken steps to make things right, the whole affair can't have done any good for his public reputation and has made him the subject of political attack. Let this be a lesson to other elected officials. These are Marie Antoinette days, we think.

Interested in corrections or recidivism? This interactive tool from the Bureau of Justice Statistics looks at prisoner recidivism. The data is old — it comes from a longitudinal study of the prison sample in the 1990s — but it's still cool. Try it.

The dish on dashboards: A couple weeks ago, we asked readers to tell us their impression of dashboards as a management tool. We got some interesting responses, and thought we'd pass a few along:

"Dashboards are a terrific tool on many levels, and I highly recommend their use. However, their usefulness is subject to buy-in from ALL levels within the organization. In addition they must be utilized in a manner that is relevant, has timely data, and is directly related to specific goals." — Scott Borror, director of finance, Fairview Heights, Il.

"Dashboards that provide numbers, usually as a direct report from the entity's financial system, without explanation of what is happening or what the numbers mean, will not be an effective "public education" tool. Numbers have to link with information — expenditures are higher than normal due to extreme snow removal costs; revenues are lower because the State has withdrawn funding ... etc." — Nancy Brewer, director of finance, Corvallis, Ore.

"We're seeing that governments are instituting performance measurements through a variety of means. Dashboards are a way to communicate at a very high level measurements about performance and costs. They work effectively if built on a combination of other approaches including activity-based costing and performance measurement. By themselves, there is a likelihood that drilling down to underlying performance data and cost information may be absent. That would mean that decisions may not be driven by data." — Mark Abrahams, president of The Abrahams Group.

Public Civility Corner. Ron Sachs, president of Ron Sachs Communications, a Florida public relations firm, recently set forth a list of rules of civility in public discourse that was developed with a collaborator, Tony Carvajal of the Collins Center for Public Policy, via Facebook. It seems remarkably common-sense-filled. We think it should be posted at the location of every public meeting. You can find the full list here. But here are a few of the items Sachs mentions:

  • Attack the position, not the person.
  • Don't question motives. Let the facts speak for themselves (but make sure the facts are correct).
  • Don't raise a charge without proof.
  • Under no circumstances call anyone a Nazi.