We’re avid users of LinkedIn and recently started a discussion in its “Performance-Based Budgeting” group with the question: “Performance measure makers are sometimes drawn to an A-F scale. Are there flaws with that?”

Given the remarkable number of comments we received there, we thought we’d open up the conversation to B&G readers. Any thoughts?

California’s Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) has given counties over $7 billion of taxpayer dollars from fiscal years 2006 to 2012. Even in California, that’s a healthy amount of money. You’d think the state would be paying close attention to make sure citizens are getting the best bang for their buck -- but you’d be wrong, according to a recent report from the California State Auditor.

The auditor found “no evidence” of on-site reviews to assure that counties were using their funds in ways that comply with the act. “None of the entities charged with evaluating the effectiveness of MHSA programs … have undertaken serious efforts to do so.” What’s more, “Each of the four county departments reviewed used different and inconsistent approaches in assessing and reporting on their MHSA.”

A few weeks ago, we speculated that the high turnover of Medicaid directors was potentially an obstacle to reaching strong levels of effectiveness and efficiency in that field. Could the same thing be true with CIOs?

According to a recent study by the IT research company Gartner that was cited on Computerworld, the typical tenure of a local, state or federal CIO in the United States and Canada dropped from 4.2 years in 2011 to 3.4 years in 2013. There are all sorts of possible reasons -- not least of which is the difficulty of running an IT department at a time when resources for sufficient staffing is scarce. But whatever the cause, we can’t imagine the effect on public-sector IT is good.

Legislative analysts from Connecticut have just issued a fascinating brief outlining various ways to encourage civic engagement. A couple of the ideas described are community policing and participatory budgeting. But the item that we really loved was “service exchanges.”

Here’s an excerpt of the report’s section on these efforts: “Service exchanges, such as timebanks, allow community members to give and receive services without paying for them with money. Commonly, volunteers receive one credit for each hour volunteered; each credit is worth one hour of another volunteer's time.”

Apparently such exchanges are particularly useful in neighborhoods populated by the poor, “as they allow participants to obtain services they could not otherwise afford.”

A version of the “Serenity Prayer” from Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project: “Invest your energy in what you have the power to influence. Don’t invest energy in what you can’t influence, and have the wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s rough raising taxes for most states. As a result, many have increasingly turned to so-called “sin taxes” on things like tobacco, gambling, liquor and so on to stay afloat. A brief report from 24/7 Wall Street lists the ten states that are most dependent on “sin.”

At the top of the list, to no surprise, is Nevada, thanks to its heavy dependence on its casinos. Rhode Island, Delaware and West Virginia come it at numbers two, three and four, respectively, with the state lottery being their most profitable sin. Delaware also relies heavily on its tobacco taxes and West Virginia on its casino gambling. And coming in at number five is New Hampshire, which “generates a larger percentage of its revenue from tobacco and liquor taxes than any other state in the nation — at 2.72 percent and 1.15 percent, respectively.”

New York City’s decision to give prominently posted letter grades to restaurants has doubtless been successful, based on measures of safety. For example, salmonella cases related to restaurant meals have dropped by 14 percent since the grading process began in July 2010. That’s certainly good, but according to The New York World, restaurant fines have gone up dramatically and the city appears to be using this process to help bring in revenues – not just clean up eateries.

Maybe higher fines are helping force restaurants to come up to standards more quickly, but we think that the city needs to be careful about this business. It just can’t be good if the public gets the idea that the city’s goal is cash instead of safety. At some point, we speculate, that’ll diminish the persuasive power of the grades themselves.

There are lots of ways to determine priorities in road projects. In some places, decisions are made based on proximity to powerful or well-off voting blocs. In others, it’s a kind of willy-nilly process made behind doors that are ajar at best. Still others use a somewhat more sophisticated, fair-minded approach, and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation appears to be ready to join that group.

It’s developed a “new scoring system, which will take into account a range of data on everything from congestion and travel time to safety and economic competitiveness [and] will be used to prioritize projects in categories at the state, regional and local level,” according to The Business Journal.

Regular readers of the B&G Report or our Smart Management column may recall our interest in states’ inspectors general and the remarkable amount of information they gather and disclose – much of it beyond simple fraud investigations. The state of Connecticut recently gathered an informative list of the inspectors general offices in the states and their various functions. It’s worth taking a look.

Ted Zaleski is the director of the Department of Management and Budget in Carroll County, Md. He’s also one of our most frequent correspondents. Just a little while ago, he responded to an item we wrote about the need for context when publishing big, scary numbers. “Things like this drive me crazy,” wrote Zaleski, offering a few examples:

  • “Someone was sharing their amazement over the size of Virginia’s surplus with me a couple years ago. They were a lot less amazed after I told them what it was as a percent of the budget.”
  • “With all of the talk about pension and OPEB obligations (I’m in no way dismissing the concerns), it is astounding to me that no one ever talks about the idea that these are estimates of the money that might be paid out over decades. There are lots of assumptions built into the estimates. Some might understate what will happen, but some might also overstate what will happen.”
  • “Sometimes you will see a newspaper article about an agency sending checks to dead people. They tell you that there were 50 erroneous checks, but not that they were 0.004% of all of the checks. Sometimes I wonder if the headline wouldn’t be more appropriately focused on the admirably low number of errors.”