A Stimulus Hole-in-One

Plus: Taxes vs. fees, unaccountable accountability, and more
March 19, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

We seem to have hit a hole-in-one regarding the reader reaction to our ongoing commentary about whether stimulus dollars should be used for things like municipal golf courses and parks. The e-mails responding to items featured over the past couple of months continue to pour in. Here's one well-worded sample from George Jones, city manager of Drumright, Oklahoma:

"There is always this idea that providing recreational parks should cost the taxpayers nothing to use but golfers should pay through the nose. Forgotten is the fact that golf courses bring many people into a community, at least temporarily, and their many charitable golf tournaments yield many other good things for a community. Not to mention the sales tax on cart rentals, golf supplies and snacks that come back to the community."

Our plan is to excerpt some of these e-mails in the next B&G Report, as a special feature. So if you've got anything on your mind related to the use of stimulus dollars for local amenities, like parks, golf courses, etc., now's the time to let us know.

We fully understand the need for states and cities to increase fees in order to balance their budgets. But we have to admit to being a little puzzled when officials proudly proclaim that there'll be "no new taxes," while raising fees on dozens of items. Of course, fees are presumably different from taxes, in that users allegedly have a choice available. They can always refuse the service and not pay the fee.

But consider recent events in Connecticut. Governor Jodi Rell has made it clear that she eschews any new taxes. But she's game for higher fees on fishing licenses, marriage certificates and drivers' licenses. Of course you could choose not to fish. But is it genuinely an option not to drive? Or get married? Don't misunderstand. We're entirely sympathetic with the need for governments to raise revenues and we're not arguing with Rell's approach. We just wonder whether citizens are going to think the difference between fees and taxes is just a political shell game.

Over the course of the past eight years, the federal government has pressed for something it calls "accountability." In practice, though, the feds focused primarily on setting targets and then seeing how close they came to being achieved - with minimal information that would actually help make anything better. Shelley Metzenbaum, the brilliant director of the Edward J. Collins Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has come up with some terrific recommendations for the next administration to avoid that trap. Her advice can be equally useful to states, counties and cities as to the folks in Washington D.C.

As she writes about the feds, "It is still remarkably difficult to find meaningful government performance information - performance levels, performance trends, and even targets - because too little attention has been paid to communicating targets and trends and too much to communicating the 'percentage of targets met' as the primary indicators of overall performance."

We strongly recommend that you take a look at the report, published under the auspices of the IBM Center for The Business of Government.

Here's a cool - if contentious - idea. According to the Las Vegas Sun , some officials in Clark County, Nevada, "want to penalize companies whose construction disrupts traffic for long periods, causing motorists frustration and adding to air pollution.... A bill would permit counties to charge fees if traffic is disrupted longer than originally planned." There are opponents, including, as you'd guess, some of the businesses that might wind up paying fees. Others are afraid that parades and public protests could be fined - but that feels like an issue that could be easily solved. Meanwhile, on the face of it, it sounds like a terrific idea. At a minimum, it would encourage companies to reasonably estimate how long traffic is going to be disrupted. It's our guess that this number is low-balled frequently.

And a hearty handshake to the Las Vegas Sun for providing us with two items in just one article. In the same piece we referenced just above, we discovered that organized labor and the gaming industry in Nevada are both advocating annual sessions to balance the budget. That would replace the current system, in which the legislature meets every couple of years for 120 days to put together a biennial budget. We've always wondered whether the legislatures that meet for a minimal amount of time are forced to rely more on anecdotes than hard information - if only because anecdotes are a lot quicker to absorb. We've got absolutely no proof of this. It's just a theory.

We love vivid metaphors, and we were attracted to one cited by Eduardo Porter in the March 8 edition of the New York Times. He noted that bull seals are driven to get fatter and fatter in order to have sufficient bulk to thrash "other males on the beach to win a harem of cows." Unfortunately, Porter points out, these huge, sexually satisfied seals pay a price for their enormity. They have real difficulties out-swimming great white sharks. Porter was using his metaphor in the context of American bankers. But it hit us in another way. It's a perfect representation of the difficulties of managing a government agency that has conflicting goals. This is an all too common dilemma - for example, when one goal is speed of service and the other is quality of service. And from now on, when we encounter it, we'll think of bull seals.

Kudos to Representataive Paul Marquart of Minnesota. He's planning to put together a bill that would "create a statewide system of performance measurements for cities and counties," according to the St. Cloud Times . For years now, we've been convinced that this kind of local-level comparative data on issues such as crime and service delivery can help the communities identify areas for improvement. And they can use the data to develop models to help them change. This kind of information can also, we think, be very helpful to the state itself. Providing this in addition to statewide information seems like a very good way to get citizens to focus. "With dollars going out and every area of the budget being scrutinized, we have to look closely at the performance of those dollars," Marquart told the newspaper. "My goal is to get everyone involved and on the same framework."

Fascinating fact from the Tallahassee Democrat : "Statistically, Florida ranks last among states in its ratio of full-time employees to population, with 118 employees per 10,000 residents. Payroll cost per resident also ranks 50th in the nation, at $36 per Floridian."

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

On the theory that you can't get enough of a good thing, this month we're bringing you the second of two suggestions from Amy Donahue, head of the department of public policy at the University of Connecticut: The Thinker's Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving, by Morgan Jones. As Donahue writes:

"[This] is a book that was recommended to me by a fire chief I hold in very high regard:. I usually shy away from books like this, that appear to offer faddish quick-fixes. In this case, though, I have found the ideas offered very practical and generalizable to lots of circumstances. The book doesn't make trite pronouncements, but explains a variety of ways of structuring problems that can help problem-solvers be more thorough, systematic, and creative, depending on the kind of problem they confront. None of these approaches will yield 'the answer,' but they all help assure the problem at hand is well understood. For those analysts and academics familiar with Stokey and Zeckhauser's Primer for Policy Analysis, this is, in a way, a more approachable version of that excellent but more technical text.

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

Many performance measurement efforts get relatively complex pretty quickly, with a whole lot of focus on replicable methodology. We can't argue with that. But sometimes, a relatively easy way to measure something can be pretty instructive - if not academically rigorous. Exhibit A can be found in Jonathan Walter's recent Human Services e-newsletter. He decided to find out how successfully four states were using the Internet to provide simple access to human service information. His approach: "I simply Googled the name of each state along with "social services" and then, initially at least, hit 'I'm feeling lucky' as my Google search parameter."

His findings are really interesting and we think many folks in state government can learn that sometimes a fast, simple route to measuring success can get you headed down the right road. (Truth in advertising: We're friends with Jonathan, and are taking pleasure in saying something nice about his work.)

For some time now, the Association of Government Accountants has been trying to encourage superior reporting of performance measures in government through its Certificate of Achievement in Service Efforts and Accomplishments Report Review Program. But if you think about it, do the folks who are already deeply involved in reporting performance really need this kind of public recognition? It can't hurt, but presumably they'd be seeing the benefits of such work without any outside approval.

On the other hand, governments that are just starting on this road are more likely to need some kind of external push to forge on through the tricky early days. The good news is that the AGA is doing just that, by changing its award structure to include a "bronze" award, also dubbed its "winning beginning award." It's also added another intermediate award as well as one for entities that show consistently superior performance.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba