The past few years have been nightmarish for human resources directors in cities and states. Cutting budgets — in actual, non-gimmicky ways — often means cutting staff. And as far as we can see, even the best-managed entity in the world will fall short of its goals if the workforce isn't what it needs to be. With that in mind, we were very impressed by Washington state's online data about its workforce. If you can think of a question you'd want to know about a state workforce, we bet you can find the answer there.

Meanwhile, If anyone is doing this better, please let us know.

Debates over privatizing prisons have been going on for years. Supporters say there's lots of money to be saved. But a recent Associated Press article focusing on Idaho argues that hasn't necessarily been the case there. Apparently the state's comparisons between private and public prisons, which show the private prisons to be cheaper, are somewhat flawed. Here's what the AP had to say:

"Idaho officials will tell you that the state's largest private prison, the Idaho Correctional Center, saves $12 per inmate, per day compared to a similar state prison. But adjusting for known system-wide expenses and the cost of overseeing the contract for the private lockup bring the per diems to just $5 apart.

"The comparable state prison also houses all of the sick and geriatric inmates, is the oldest facility in the state and spans multiple buildings on a 65-acre campus, requiring a high guard-to-inmate ratio to patrol. The private prison, meanwhile, is relatively new and compact and only accepts inmates without chronic medical or mental health needs, factors that allow it to operate with a lower staff-to-inmate ratio. Those factors make it likely that the state could operate the facility for no more than it pays the private company."

Are states wasting money on public university students who don't graduate? According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, graduation rates in Pennsylvania's public university system vary from 24 percent to 65 percent. The same article makes the point that students who drop out of college without earning a degree are often no more successful than those who never started college in the first place. (In fact, they may be worse off, if they took on debt.)

There's a parallel to state HR systems, where the primary goal is really retention, not hiring. Assuming that the Chronicle piece is accurate, it seems to us that there's an awful lot of state money being spent ineffectively — and that this is the kind of targeted area that states ought to look into for savings (or improved services to their college students).

A classic route to better employee performance, from a blog post by Scott Pattison, director of the National Association of State Budget Officers: "If state employees think they're just processing a form ... they'll treat the form in a routine manner. When they find out the form is what gets drunk drivers off the road and thus saves lives, they know the goal to strive for — speed up the processing of those forms as much as possible."

Delaying infrastructure maintenance is a lot like putting off credit card payments. You can get away with it for a while, but eventually the absolutely minimum payments will eat you alive. That's what's so scary about a recent survey of 1,300 county engineers commissioned by the National Association of Counties.

A few facts from the research:

  • 81 percent report that they have deferred maintenance since the beginning of the economic slowdown.
  • 98 percent report that some of their roads are in poor and/or fair condition.
  • 86 percent report having bridges in poor condition.
  • 51 percent report that they experienced funding cuts of between 10 to 25 percent since 2008.

When we asked readers whether sick leave hours should be included in calculations of overtime, responses were numerous and very much in sync with one another. We've now put together a rundown of some of the many responses we received.

Penny-wise and pound-foolish. When we're giving speeches, we're often asked why cities and states can't seem to get a fair shake from the press. Without agreeing or disagreeing with that particular proposition, we've come upon one surefire way to alienate the media.

Until recently, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, intended to charge a $2-per-page photocopying fee for each image of its records that was copied onto a blank CD, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The Reporters Committee says that, "Because the documents already were scanned into the office's computer system, the cost of providing copies amounts to about $1 per CD, not the more than $200,000 the recorder's office sought to charge for two months of data. This fee structure was [only a subject of debate] in Cuyahoga County; other Ohio counties charged between $1 and $20 per disc."

Fortunately for local reporters, the Ohio Supreme Court has determined that the $2-per-page fee was excessive and contrary to the intent of state law.

We'd like to add that the very notion of keeping reporters away from all the facts is a bad idea. Their only other choice is often to take data from whatever individual they can get on the phone quickly. And that can be bad for the press and government.

Over the years, we've returned again and again to the sometimes-twinned topics of mistrust of government and the lack of civility in public discourse. The most recent edition of Public Management magazine includes a great list of ways to take the steam out of the pot when it comes to public debates. Here are a handful of the suggestions, which were compiled by author Dana K. Lee:

  • You must depersonalize the attack.
  • Don't carry around a grudge.
  • Indifference is a nice strategy.
  • Wait it out. Don't respond.
  • Build a support network.
  • Be aware of a rational versus an instinctive reaction.

There's no question that public-sector pensions have become one of the hottest topics of the past few years. Just take a look at the work of our roommate in the Management letter, Girard Miller, for a little evidence.

But it seems to us like there's a public perception that pensions are nothing but bad news for cities and states. Here are a couple of statistics from the National Institute of Retirement Security that provide a little context. According to its recent study, "For each dollar paid out in pension benefits, $2.37 in total economic output was supported. For every dollar contributed by taxpayers to state and local pension funds, $8.72 in total output was supported nationally."

The study also argues that "More than $1 trillion in total economic output and $553 billion in value added in the United States was attributable to pension benefits. These expenditures also supported some $134 billion in tax revenue at the local, state, and federal levels."

Disneyland in the capitol building. How do you retain valuable workers in state and local governments? Few places currently have any money for raises or new benefits. And there are only so many lucite "Worker of the Month" plaques you can hand out without running into award-inflation.

The Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies just ran a piece on the importance of "fun" in the workplace. According to the study, fun is a critical, often missing element: "The present study extended previous research on fun in the workplace by examining the influence of workplace fun in the context of applicant attraction. Specifically, this research examined the impact of workplace fun relative to other key predictors of applicant attraction. Furthermore, this research examined the impact of different sources of workplace fun-fun coworker interactions, fun job responsibilities, and formal fun activities. With a sample of collegiate job seekers, the results demonstrated that workplace fun was a stronger predictor of applicant attraction than compensation and opportunities for advancement. Moreover, the results demonstrated that fun coworker interactions and fun job responsibilities were stronger predictors of applicant attraction than formal fun activities."

We suppose that the definition of "fun" work may vary a lot from employee to employee. The two of us, for example, like making charts with colored pencils, but we're not so sure that would be such an attraction to others.