A Gift List for Managers

Plus: How to fix failed institutions, keeping track of budget cuts, and more
December 17, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Manager's Gift List. It's a giving time of year, so we thought we'd take note of the holiday season by providing good gift ideas for the government managers you really care about. (Assuming, that is, that such gift giving isn't illegal for you, in which case please disregard this item.)

Here are five:

The complete "West Wing" series on DVD . Although it's focused on the federal, not the state or local level, at heart the show demonstrates an exhilarating appreciation of the good that government can do

A candy dish. Some of the most clever managers we know keep candy in their offices to entice others to come by and chat. It's amazing how much better an informal four minute chat can be than a series of e-mails.

Magnet Marbles . They're small, colorful, hard balls with magnets inside - so they attract and repel each other. One of the best desktop anti-stress devices you'll find for a few bucks.

The Week . Too busy to read much of anything? This weekly magazine features articles that are little more than short summaries of other major articles on a topic. It's a great, easy way to get caught up.

A handwritten note. There's nothing like a little year-end praise to make someone happy. Subordinates often don't feel like they're in the position to tell bosses, "Great job on the project." But the truth is that the higher up the totem pole managers get, the less frequently they get positive reinforcement. You can fill in the hole. For free.

Manager's Reading List: Our ongoing feature about books to read, recommended by B&G readers

Still need a gift idea? Here's another entry in our Manager's Reading List. As regular readers of the B&G Report know, for months now we've been featuring reading suggestions supplied by readers. This month, we're making our own suggestion, simply because the book we have in mind has just come out, and it's so good.

It's The Next Government of the United States: Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How to Fix Them by Donald Kettl. [Full disclosure: We think of Don as a friend, and one of the wisest men we know. So we'd be inclined to like his book in any case.] The glory of the book is the way Don provides multiple horror stories about the breakdown of government and still emerges with a book full of optimism about ways government can function more intelligently and effectively than in the past.

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

The most boring piece we can imagine in the B&G Report would be one talking about how many states, cities and counties are cutting their budgets. No news there. But how many of these governments are actually keeping track of the impact on performance of these cuts? Seems to us like this is an ideal time to see real-world outcomes related to real world cuts. How much are waiting lists and caseloads growing? Tracking this kind of information, carefully, is a crucial step to fully understand the choices that are on the table.

No matter how well intentioned, new legislation can be worthless or counterproductive if implementation is flawed. A depressing example of the phenomenon is in Louisiana, where the Commission on Public Retirement was set up in 2003, as an "entity to study and make recommendations concerning the administration, benefits, investments, funding, efficiency and accountability of the state and statewide public retirement systems." Sounded smart to us. Sadly, the commission met just twice in 2003 and has never met again since then, according to our sources.

File this under "unintended consequences." The state of Connecticut decided that "any town with a Web site must post minutes from public meetings on the site within seven days of the meeting and must give residents at least 24 hours notice of special meetings through the site," according to the New York Times . Great stuff, right? More disclosure. More transparency. But what happened to small towns that simply couldn't physically comply? They risked penalties. Solution? They're shutting down their Web sites altogether. Sigh....

Neither of us has ever worked in the Texas legislature. But we sure wouldn't mind retiring from there. Let us explain.

A couple of weeks ago, we spoke at the Council of State Governments annual meeting. At one point, we idly commented that we couldn't imagine anyone continuing in the state legislature in order to build up a pension. After our talk, Texas state Senator Jeff Wentworth gently explained that while this may be true in other places, it ignored the facts of life in the Lone Star State.

His explanation took our breath away.

It turns out that, like most government workers, Texas legislators contribute a percentage of their annual salary to their pension. But while their salaries are a meager $7,200 a year, the salary that's used in calculating their pensions is that of a state district court judge: $125,000. As with most public pensions, you have to stay on the job a number of years to qualify -- eight years to retire at age 60 or 12 years to retire at age 50. The longer you stay, the bigger the benefit. One article, published a few years ago in the Oklahoma City Journal Record, noted that one Texas legislator who never made more than $7,200 annually as a legislator retired after 39 years of service with an annual pension of $92,704. Not bad for a session that lasts 140 days every other year.

Why don't states, cities and counties like being compared with one another? The answers can be pretty obvious. But we thought Shelley Metzenbaum, senior research fellow at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at UMass-Boston, shed some very cogent light on the issue in her recent Management Insights column on Governing.com.

She wrote, "Resistance to comparison is understandable, but unfortunate and self-defeating. When done well, comparison is a powerful tool for improving performance. Its greatest power comes not, as often assumed, from triggering competitive instincts to fight for the top spot or to avoid the bottom. Instead, comparison's chief value lies in its ability to illuminate government actions that work well and merit replication, as well as those that do not and are in need of attention."

Making employee data easily available through computers is a good thing. But an alarming study by PricewaterhouseCoopers has revealed that some 65 percent of public sector respondents indicated that their governments don't have accurate inventories of where the personal data was collected, transmitted and stored. That's something like putting money in a bank account without keeping track of what bank and what account.

On the flip side of the technological coin, research published by the Archives of Internal Medicine (an American Medical Association journal) has shown that doctors who use electronic systems prescribe lower-cost drugs. The explanation: Technology helps physicians do a better job of considering possible lower-cost alternatives. Otherwise, the variety of options presents a wall of data that most clinicians simply can't surmount. The key, of course, is getting people to actually use the technology -- not just to make it available to them.

We know this isn't what the headline meant, but we were intrigued at the earth-shaking connection between existence and fiscal decisions that was unintentionally implied in a recent story in the Providence Journal. The headline: "Eliminating 'death tax' would boost R.I. population." If that's true, would raising estate taxes would kill off a bunch of people?

We just heard from a well-respected long-time consultant, policy analyst and governmental adviser. She's looking for a job right now, as are so many others, and from that perspective she wrote to tell us how appalled she's been with some of the hiring practices she's encountered. A few highlights form her note:

"I've been stunned at the recruiting/screening practices being used by many governments. Although written communications skills are perhaps the most important skill for the types of jobs I'm applying for, virtually no one asks for writing samples and when I try to provide them, they refuse to accept them." [...]

"One very large county (which shall be nameless) is recruiting for a new director of government relations (6 figure salary) yet they are doing "oral exams" with 17 people (all in one day) as a method to reduce the field. As I see it, that's a system that you use to create a registry of eligibles for a clerical job, not a senior executive with substantial leadership responsibilities." [...]

"Another very large county called me with less than 6 hours notice for a telephone interview. From the sound of the voices of the interviewers, they didn't want to be doing this and didn't really know what they were doing. The questions they asked had no real relevance to the job they were hiring for (i.e., government relations director). No doubt they were tired too because they were doing 14 interviews in a day!

"The whole focus of the questioning is on past accomplishments, without any recognition that the world is changing dramatically, almost as we speak. No one has asked me about technology and my ability to use/evaluate it (except to make certain that I can do my own clerical work), although another pivotal role for senior managers is their ability to integrate new technologies into their work."

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba