After about a quarter of a century covering government management as journalists, we’re going to don a prognosticator’s cap -- at least temporarily. Based on our reporting, what follows are our predictions for six management challenges that we think will be of high-level importance for states and localities over the course of this year. None of the trends represent spanking new issues. In our opinion, though, all of them will escalate in significance as the months (and possibly years) pass.
Building the workforce
During the past year or two, we’ve interviewed the majority of the states’ HR directors and kept in touch with many of them as time went on. What we’ve heard them say and repeat over and over again is a variation on one theme: “I have a great A team, and a good C team, but I lack a strong B team.” That faltering B team is the roster of men and women who are ready to move into the top management spots. Thanks to high turnover among new employees and cutbacks in training, there are fewer and fewer managers ready to make the leap. In the next year, governments will need to focus on ways to provide the next top echelon of leaders.
IT officials from all levels of government place cybersecurity at the top of their list of issues with which they have to contend. But many state legislatures are not providing the resources necessary to build a strong wall around the government’s data. Thus far, the breaches that have actually taken place in the public sector have primarily involved privacy issues. It seems clear to us that it’s just a matter of time before some of the scarier ramifications of a cybersecurity failure manifest themselves. A list of such failures would include breakdowns in the functioning of traffic lights in major cities; foul-ups in the transmission of electronic health records; and crashes of the elaborate computers that are vital in state prison systems.
Siloed data and big data
We’ve been reading endless articles about the virtues and potential for the use by governments of big data. Notwithstanding the fact that we’re pretty sure that there’s no standard definition of big data, one thing is clear: Most states and localities have been unable to integrate in an appropriate way the streams of data they already have, especially since it’s divided up among agencies, departments and programs. In talking with scores of men and women who deal with state data, this seems to emerge as one of the most important impediments to making the highest and best use of data. This is an unfortunate exclusion. When a department of mental health, for example, is offering services to the same individuals as county-run hospitals, homeless programs and so on, significant savings and streamlined services can be developed if the various care suppliers have access to the same data. This would avoid duplication of services and create heightened efficiencies.
Cities, counties and states have been putting off repairs to their roads, bridges, transit systems, sewers and other key pieces of infrastructure. The longer they do so, the more it will ultimately cost to prevent vital public works from becoming functionally decrepit and unusable. Still, when there’s tremendous pressure to spend money on other services, especially ones with vocal constituencies, the temptation is great to put repairs on the back burner. This is particularly true with water infrastructure. Citizens may rail with outrage about potholes, but they don’t see depletion of water supplies or disintegration of pipes until the problem is pretty far gone. As recent pipe breakdowns make clear, these are repairs that can’t be avoided much longer.
When governments contract out services to private-sector firms, they make the case that this is going to save tons of money and provide better services. We’re dubious and inclined to make a bet that this trend will be reversing itself. In many instances, states and localities base their money-saving argument on a potentially false assumption that private-sector firms are more efficient than the public sector. Not nearly enough evaluations are done to support that thesis. We think it’s true only some of the time. So our prediction is that when evaluations are done about contracting-out results, the general mindset may well change. We are likely to see pressure to re-municipalize water systems.
It’s increasingly clear that transparency -- a darling of the good-government set -- is not as easy or helpful a goal as has been thought. For one thing, any number of so-called “transparency websites” turn out to be hard to use, out of date and lacking in important information. What’s more, there’s pushback from agencies that believe that they’re not legally allowed to disclose certain information. Then, too, there are instances in which transparency is simply not a panacea. For example, when it’s time for labor negotiations, should cities be required to publicize information that will put them at a disadvantage to labor unions?