Afraid to Fire?

Plus: The problem with a one-year check-up, unspent money in Tulsa, and more
November 19, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Do inadequate people ever stay in jobs just because their bosses are afraid to fire them? We were inspired to ask you this question by an excellent column by Governing's Ellen Perlman. She wrote, "Chief information officers and other government IT experts long have lectured that insider threats can be as insidious and harmful as those of an unknown prowler."

Seems to us like there are a lot of government officials who are privy to insider information -- from computer codes to the details of botched projects -- for whom that information might function as a kind of job insurance. You don't have to name any names, but we're curious: Have you come across instances like this? E-mail us and let us know.

There is no idea so good that it can't be mucked up. As regular readers of the B&G Report know, we're practically zealots when it comes to the need to evaluate the benefits of government spending. And we've been delighted to see that notion taking hold in the executive branches of a growing number of states and cities. But lately, we've come across a good number of efforts to evaluate results after just one year.

Checking in after 12 months is all right, but it's worrisome if that evaluation is taken too seriously. How many entrepreneurs would have been shut down by their investors if they failed to turn a profit after a single year? (In fact, undercapitalization is one of the primary reasons small businesses go belly up prematurely.) Worthwhile ideas need a little time to show their value.

A few weeks ago, Tulsa's budget director Pat Connelly "reported that the city has $135.2 million in unspent bond proceeds and dedicated sales tax revenue from authorizations back to 1991," according to the Bond Buyer. This revelation took city councilors by surprise. "We have funds that date back 17 years that haven't been expended," Councilor Bill Martinson was quoted as saying, "and we have streets that are falling apart before our very eyes." We'll bet that Tulsa isn't the only city that is in a position like this.

File under Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish. The Medical Examiner's Office in Mississippi has a number of important oversight responsibilities, as well as authority over all the medical examiners in the state. Right now there are a number of problems in that area, according to a recent report by the state's Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review.

For example, "Since 1995 designated pathologists have been performing all autopsies referred to a medical examiner. No state-level oversight of these designated pathologists has been exercised since 1991.... The office's staff currently does not have the medical expertise to review the reports filed by local medical examiners.... The office has not effectively fulfilled some of its recordkeeping duties -- specifically, reconciliation of local medical examiners' death reports with death certificates from the Department of Health."

You might think that PEER was coming down pretty hard on the poor person who had the Medical Examiner's job. But there's no danger of that. The job has been vacant for 13 years because the legislature hasn't funded it.

First, let it be said that we're sick and tired of hearing about "innovation." It's not that we're against new ideas and risk-taking. We love new ideas and risk-taking. It's just that over the last few years, we've heard the word "innovation" so many times, said by so many people as a kind of panacea for all that ails government, that we fear the word may be losing real meaning.

Now, watch us turn on a dime, all in the same short item. The current downturn forces governments to think about how they're going to pay bills and make their governments cheaper, right away. But recent profile of Judy Estrin, former chief technology officer at Cisco Systems and author of "Closing the Innovation Gap," raises a valid concern. "We're focusing on the short term and we're not planting the seeds for the future," she says.

According to the New York Times, "Ms. Estrin urges setting aside certain efficiency measures in favor of what she calls "green-thumb leadership" -- a future-oriented management style that understands, and even encourages, taking risks. Let efficiency measures govern the existing "factory farm," she says, but create greenhouses and experimental gardens along the sides of the farm to nurture the risky investments that likely will take a number of years to bear fruit.

"I'm not suggesting you only cut from today's stuff and keep the future part untouched," she says. "You have to balance it."

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

From Dennis Rogers, assistant director for strategic development in Kansas' department of social and rehabilitation services:

"Try 'The Opposable Mind' by Roger Martin.... Strategic planning and thinking is the focus rather than simply learning the difference between conventional and integrative thinkers. The examples given are practical applications of the 4 step model of Integrative Thinking: determining relevance; examining causality; organizing the parts into the whole; and appraising the outcome. Martin presents "both/and" thinking in a new way that makes sense."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

Early retirement plans may seem sensible in tough budget times. But it's startling how many are problematic. Consider Rhode Island. Katherine Gregg of the Providence Journal has just written a terrific piece about her state's plan. Here are a few choice excerpts:

"If all of the jobs were left vacant, the state would presumably save tens of millions of dollars in salaries and benefits. But first, the taxpayers have to pay the retirees for unused vacation and sick days, the deferred pay they were promised as a concession for taking a pay cut during the financial crisis of 1991 and, in some cases, the early-retirement bonuses of $7,000 to $20,000 offered to state college employees."

"While the average payout was a reported $10,500, former Rhode Island College president John Nazarian got a check for $129,158 on his way out the door.... About 10 others got checks for more than $50,000.... Many more got checks for $30,000, $40,000 and more.

Gregg says Gov. Donald Carcieri's office can't determine how many state workers are left, but the administration has increased its use of temporary employment agenecies to fill gaps.

"The Carcieri administration had no response when asked how much the state is spending on its army of contract employees, whose salaries were once posted on the controller's Web site but are no longer. Among the other unanswered questions yesterday: are there state retirees among them?"

Quote for the day, from Gene Steuerle, vice president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation: "the surest way to lose an election is to identify how to pay for a promise."

Back in February 2007, we wrote an item about the police auditor in Omaha, Nebraska, being fired. We've just come across an article in the San Jose Mercury News about a similar event in that city. According to the News, While "the council offered no official explanation for dumping [the auditor]," she "had been on thin ice with the mayor and some members of the council since last year, when she tried and failed to expand her power to investigate deaths caused by officers' use of force."

The auditor's response: "The council action to terminate my appointment undermines the independence of the IPA [Independent Police Auditor]. . .It sends a message to future IPA directors, to the community and the police department. That message is that if the IPA director makes serious or controversial recommendations, she does so at risk of losing her job."

We don't know enough about the details in San Jose to draw any absolute judgments. But here's our suggestion: Before any city hires a police auditor, it should first spell out in clear language a full set of reasons that could lead to the auditor's being fired. These criteria should be based on the principal that an auditor needs as much independence as is possible. And then, if the auditor is fired, city officials should be required to show which reason applied.

Congratulations to Kansas. For the first time, voters in that state who wanted information about judges and justices in retention elections could view judicial report cards online. The report cards at, created by the Kansas Commission on Judicial Performance, gathered survey data about the state's judges and justices from attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, jurors and many others who have had "sufficient experience" with the judge being evaluated.

Residents across the state vote on the retention of Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges. And even though other judges are appointed, their evaluations are available, as well.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba