A Snitch in Time

Plus: The power of comfort, Florida's liquor-lag, and more.
August 19, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Snitches? Or good government managers? A survey by the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital has found that a third of physicians studied didn't turn in their peers, even when they acted in an incompetent manner, abused drugs or had mental health problems.

This is kind of scary for us. We can understand why you wouldn't turn someone in for filching a few hospital pencils or parking in a reserved space. But the issues in this study are rather more extreme. This set us to wondering about managers in the public sector. So here's a question for you, the readers of the B&G Report: If you were aware of a co-worker who was incompetent for any reason (e.g. extreme laziness, a lack of concern about the job, drug or alcohol abuse), would you let someone in the organization — an HR representative, a superior or someone else — know? Also, if you've ever been in this particular position, we'd be curious to hear what you did and why.

As always, we can be reached at greenebarrett@gmail.com.

Do you ever negotiate with bosses, employees, contractors or anyone else? If so, here's a clever little tip we just picked up from a roundup of unusual studies making news at George Mason University. It turns out that comfy counts.

Here's how. "In one out of a series of experiments, 86 participants took part in a mock car sale — some sitting in hard, wooden chairs and others in cushioned chairs. Those that sat in a wooden chair were less likely to compromise on price. John Bargh, lead study author and Yale psychology professor, explains, 'Experiences with the physical world, such as hardness, heaviness or smoothness, activate the physical meaning of those concepts, but it also activates the abstract meanings of those concepts — hard may mean difficult, heavy may mean serious.'"

Kudos to Florida for making dramatic improvements through better use of online services. Charlie Liem, secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, brought this to our attention, and we thought it might be inspirational to others.

The story: In order to sell alcoholic beverages in Florida, brands must be registered with the department's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. "Historically," according to Liem, "this has been a lengthy process involving numerous forms and long processing times. This cumbersome process could take up to eight weeks to register a single label, leaving distributors waiting, sometimes with product in-hand, for approval before they could sell new products to retailers."

So last spring, the state moved brand registration online, which required reviewing all the processes involved. This was accomplished with a team of subject matter experts, attorneys and technology staff to review the statutory requirements for brand registration. After that was accomplished, the team was able to eliminate unnecessary requirements, map out a new process and create a system that allows applicants to do everything they needed to online. With input from stakeholders, and after about six months of implementation, the department now provides a one-stop online licensing process for registering multiple brands. The process also includes automatic data sharing with the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to capture electronic images of labels.

The result: A new system that reduces the processing time from eight weeks to a matter of minutes. We're impressed.

Youth employment is at a 60-year low. That's not a huge surprise. But apparently there are 21 states using emergency funds from the federal government "to expand and develop programs specifically designed for youth," according to David A. Hansell, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families. To us, this seems to be an excellent use of cash during hard budget times. We believe that when young people don't have the opportunity to work — no matter how much they want to — it can set them on a deeply undesirable path. The problem of youth unemployment, of course, is intensely complicated. And we imagine some of these programs won't ultimately turn out to be successful. Our big hope is that many of these states will keep good performance information, so that others can learn from their successes and mistakes.

Taxing nonprofits? We just came across a piece in the New York Times about ways cities and towns are struggling to bring in more revenue. In the middle of the item was the following: "And leaders in Manchester, N.H., and Concord, Mass., are taking an approach that might have once seemed politically unthinkable. They are re-examining whether their communities' nonprofit organizations really deserve to be tax-free.

"'The stress of the past couple years is causing us to look absolutely everywhere,' said Anthony Logalbo, the finance director in Concord, where officials realized that 15 percent of the town's property value had become tax exempt and sent letters to nonprofit groups asking whether they would consider paying something to the town."

We're going to wait a few more weeks, and then try to reach Finance Director Logalbo to see how many nonprofits offered up some hard cash. Stay tuned.

Because of the relative antiquity of the source, and the currency of the message, the following is our favorite new quote: "Let every man, every corporation, and especially let every village, town, and city, every county and State, get out of debt and keep out of debt. It is the debtor that is ruined by hard times." — Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th president of the United States

One of the biggest shocks to us, after college graduation, was that we'd entered a world in which being older didn't necessarily mean you had the better job and that younger people reported to you. That's a system folks get pretty accustomed to during their youth, but before you know it, you're 55 years old and reporting to very smart, young people who weren't even born when you were 25.

This dynamic may be hardest on the younger folks who oversee the work of men and women old enough to be their parents, or even their grandparents. What to do? Here are some tips from Meagan and Larry Johnson, a father-daughter team and the authors of "Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters."

Some of the Johnsons' thoughts: Respect elder workers' experience; give them freedom without abandoning them; prove yourself through performance; motivate them on their terms; forge alliances and arrange for recognition and credit.

It could look like the plan in Montgomery County, Md., to give employees a lot of comp time in lieu of raises would be kind of a free lunch. But you know as well as we do about free lunches. According to a strong piece by Michael Laris of the Washington Post, this plan — which effectively provides the equivalent of additional paid vacation — is pretty costly. "If the approximately 8,700 government employees who are covered took all [the time being offered], they'd be away from their duties for about 117 years." The calculation was based on a county council analysis.

"The dust-up has added to questions about whether Montgomery's government, even after cutbacks, has too many employees and pays too well. If it can afford to lose 117 years worth of service without much impact, as the Leggett administration has argued, that could mean there's still room for efficiencies, some officials said."

But the big question is how much all this comp time will actually cost. Supporters argue that it's free because no overtime will be paid to make up for the lost hours. The county council's Office of Legislative Oversight disagrees, arguing that "the agreements 'would have an approximate value of about $7 million,' based on an annual salary average of $60,000 for all employees."

What's more, there's always the possibility that employees could happily take the new comp time and save accrued vacation days, which can be cashed in for real dollars at some point in the future.

Public Civility Corner: We know that cities and states aren't theme parks. But we've just left Walt Disney World, and can't help but wonder why city and state employees can't be trained to take on the same attitude as most of the men and women we encountered down there.

The major element we'd like to see in the training course? The cast members, as Disney calls them, all seem to take a personal responsibility for making sure that guests all have positive experiences. There's a lack of the "not-my-job" syndrome that we've experienced and heard about in cities, counties and states from coast to coast. It seems to us like the attitude at the Disney parks — where employees seem to take responsibility for any problem encountered in the park at large — not only makes paying guests happier, but produces a sense of general fulfillment on the part of the desk staff at hotels, waiters in restaurants and people selling knick-knacks.