Closing the Tech Gap

Plus: Walkability scores, e-mail advice, and more
February 4, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

There is a "huge technology gap between the public and private sectors," said Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag on January 14. He bemoaned the fact that too many federal workers have better computers at home than in their offices and complained that the lack of good technology at the federal level "results in billions of dollars in waste, slow and inadequate customer service and a lack of transparency about how dollars are spent."

Orszag was talking about the federal government. Would you, our readers, agree, based on your experiences in state and local government? E-mail us with your thoughts.

A growing number of cities seem to be increasingly concerned with finding ways to get people out of their cars and onto the downtown sidewalks. With that in mind, we were captivated by a Web site called Walk Score, which allows users to see how "walkable" their address is. Places are ranked more walkable, according to the site, if they are in close proximity to groceries, mass transit, drugstores, restaurants, libraries and so on. And even if this site is of no use to you in your work, it's a lot of fun to see how your home fares. (Our New York apartment got a 90 out of 100, making it a "walker's paradise," according to the site. We're proud.)

E-mail advice. A couple of weeks ago, we asked readers to provide good concrete advice for avoiding the pitfalls of e-mailing. We received a number of suggestions, including, notably, the reminder that e-mails can be public documents. In the words of one correspondent, "My 'golden rule' with regards to e-mail communication is that if you don't want to see it in the Sunday morning paper, front page and above the fold, don't send it."

A handful of other thoughts:

o "Sometimes messages require a personal touch. That means a phone call or personal visit to deliver a message."

o "I wait to fill in the 'to' line until I'm sure the message conveys the proper tone. This avoids an accidental transmittal before the message is finished."

o "If you mention or quote a third party -- copy them."

o "Unless the person receiving the e-mail really, really, really knows you, sarcasm is best left out of e-mails. Body language and voice inflection are extremely difficult to portray in e-mails."

o "Like any other writing, read it aloud to yourself before sending it."

Here's some good news for human resource officials in state and local government. It turns out that your success holding onto employees has gotten better, while the private sector hasn't improved on this count. At least that's the conclusion reached by a study done by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which looked at a 25-year span of time. According to EBRI: "Private-sector workers' median tenure ... held steady over the period, near the 3.9-year level of 2008, but the median tenure for public-sector workers increased from 6.0 years in 1983 to 7.0 years in 2008. Over this 25-year period, median job tenure in the public sector increased significantly relative to the private sector, and currently is about 80 percent higher than that of the private sector."

There is, however, a cloud inside this silver lining, according to the report: The long tenure of public sector workers has contributed to the much-reported existence of a mass of employees nearing retirement age.

How to run a state? The Civic Federation, a research organization in Chicago, has come up with some very solid recommendations for state spending in Illinois. All apply to other states as well. While many of the recommendations are just common sense, here's one that we think can't be repeated frequently enough: "One-Time Revenues Should not be Used to Pay for Operations. The state must not use onetime proceeds, such as from asset leases or sales, to help eliminate its operating budget deficit. One-time revenues should never be used for recurring operating expenses. Simply put, the money will not be available the next year. Rather, the appropriate use of one-time revenue windfalls is to reduce short or long-term liabilities, such as debt, pension, or other post employment liabilities."

Crystal balls, anyone? One of the hardest things about managing a city, county or state is that it's impossible to know what the future holds. Well, we have a new source for prognostications: Old children's books. Thanks to, we've been alerted to a 1972 children's book called "2010: Living in the Future." According to the book, "People who do office work do it at home. To keep in close touch with other people in their office they use the vision phone. The vision desk is connected to their firm's computer, which stores all the office files. With this close contact between everybody in the office, it is easy to work from home."

Well, maybe it's talking about 2020. But it was sure on the right track. Though the book, by Geoffrey Hoyle, is out of print, you can read it online. The illustrations are definitely worth the click.

Savings behind bars. An article called "69 Ways to Save Millions" by Connie Clem, in the November-December issue of American Jails magazine, features a number of suggestions to reduce the costs of jails, without jeopardizing programs that lead to more successful re-entry. (Note: This was about jails, which are fundamentally paid for at the local level, as opposed to prisons, which are in the hands of the states and the federal government.)

Many of the author's thoughts tread on familiar, but crucial, territory, like energy savings and cutting back on overtime. But there are some ideas that are intriguing and a bit more unusual. A few:

o Chief Deputy Tim Albin from Tulsa County, Oklahoma, said his jail has been able to cut down bed use by selling prepaid phone cards to inmates. That's because the ease of phone use makes it simpler for detainees to reach the family and friends who'll help them make bail -- and get out of the expensive holding facility.

o The jail in Ada County, Idaho, has found it less expensive to use video conferencing for arraignments rather than paying transportation costs, which involve a fair amount of security.

o Ada County also changed its policies so that offenders who were "once released on $50,000 bond are now released on $5,000 bond plus electronic monitoring."

o Waldo County, Maine, has increased the use of volunteer mentors who work with inmates before and after release in an effort to reduce recidivism.

Misleading mortality statistics are the subject of our "Smart Management" column in the February issue of Governing . The column, if you haven't seen it already, deals with the consequences of improperly filled-out death certificates, one of which is the underreporting of certain diseases. That can lead to underfunding prevention. We just came across a particularly powerful example.

Several medical journals we explored cite hepatitis as underreported in the mortality statistics. This is a real pity since more attention to hepatitis B and C, and more education about the diseases, could help to keep infected individuals from spreading it to others. It could also contribute to the development of more effective and potentially less expensive treatments. The National Institute of Medicine recently called for a big public health effort to corral these diseases. But there are surely many other ailments that don't have such a vocal and powerful foe.

Texas Governor Rick Perry complained in mid-January that he doesn't want "distant bureaucrats" telling the state what to do. We'd long since gotten used to the sad fact that the word "bureaucrats" is used by many as an epithet. But somehow calling them "distant bureaucrats" seemed to make the existence of these men and women even less desirable, notwithstanding that these are the people who actually do a huge amount of the work of government at all levels. So we did a search on the phrase, and found that generally the difference between regular old bureaucrats and distant bureaucrats is that the latter group works in Washington, D.C.

How important is a governor? There are lots of ways to answer that. But we just came across one on the Web site for the National Association of Counties (NACo). Noting that there are likely to be a number of ribbon-cutting ceremonies coming as stimulus dollars are spent -- and that attendees may include a variety of state and local officials -- NACO provided a list of the order in which dignitaries should be introduced. The ranking comes from the United States Army.

First, second and third spots, in all instances, remain the same: the President, other heads of state or reigning royalty and the vice president. In the Number Four spot are governors -- but only in their own states. When they're coming from another state they're number 43, narrowly beating out former vice presidents and former congressmen. (And by the way, if there are multiple out-of-state governors, they are supposed to be introduced in the order in which their state was admitted to the union. In case of a tie, alphabetical order is used.)

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan