Do Politics Get in the way of Sensible Initiatives?

Plus: Telecommuting breeds discontent, sick public-sector workers, and more
January 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Tell us what you think. Many government managers we've chatted with over the years (particularly over drinks) complain about how the "politicians get in the way" of sensible initiatives. It's not like they're opposed to the political process -- they just find it a pain in the neck. We're reaching out to you, our readers, to share comments on, or examples of, times when elected officials foolishly undermined good management. Or when they've done the opposite and provided the resources or support necessary to put good management in place. We'll fill you in soon on what we hear.

And lest you believe that we don't pay sufficient attention to the comments you make, please be sure to look at the January issue of Governing, in which we used your thoughts about efficient or inefficient meetings to write a column about that subject.

How to keep employees happy? States and localities are always looking for ways to accomplish this, without raising their pay. One of the more widely acclaimed approaches, in recent years, has been permitting employees to telecommute. That kind of flexibility -- enabled by new communications technologies -- has always seemed like a sensible way to help people balance their work life with family needs. But under the rubric of "every silver lining has a cloud," a new study by Timothy Golden, associate professor in the Lally School of Management & Technology at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, asks this question: How happy are the folks who are left at the office? His answer: Not so happy. Turns out that the greater the percentage of telecommuters, the less happy their stay-behind workmates are.

"While reasons for the adverse impact on non-teleworker's satisfaction are varied," the professor explains, "it potentially could be due to coworkers' perceptions that they have decreased flexibility and a higher workload, and the ensuing greater frustration that comes with coordinating in an environment with more extensive co-worker telework."

And while we're writing about unhappy employees, we just came upon a poll that indicated that a huge portion of private-sector employees regularly show up to work sick for a variety of reasons, including a desire to keep up with their work and save sick days for when their children are sick. This is obviously not a good thing, as colds spread through offices leaving everybody miserable and unproductive.

It struck us upon seeing this that we're continually talking to public-sector employees who can barely talk because they're sniffling and coughing their way through an interview. Some governments might improve productivity if they coupled their wellness programs with the capacity for employees to actually stay home if they're really sick. We know that there are widespread abuses of sick leave in the public sector, but this is kind of the flip side of the coin.

Back in January 2006, we wrote in our Governing management column that "pretty much everyone who has studied the formula for determining the poverty rate knows that it's flat-out wrong." We went on to suggest that cities and states would be wise to tap into better sources for determining poverty -- given the number of programs that are tied to that statistic. While we're quite certain that New York City's Mayor Bloomberg isn't reading back issues of Governing to pick up on our column, it did please us to see that he is doing just this.

The city is now developing its own measure of poverty, in order to make certain that the huge sums spent on anti-poverty programs are used effectively. Their effort could start a nationwide rethinking about the way we calculate the poverty rate.

If that happens, we intend to take credit, whether it's deserved or not.

A simple question: A bunch of states are considering requiring audio or video recordings of government meetings. But who's watching? Utah and Nevada have gone the furthest, mandating multimedia recordings of pretty much all meetings, and Illinois, Iowa and Hawaii are following suit in one way or another. The idea sounds pretty good to us. But all we want to know is whether states that put in the effort measure the number of people who actually look at the recordings afterwards.

As regular readers of this report know, we get pretty frustrated at folks who continually argue that state and local governments just need to be managed more efficiently in order for all their financial problems to disappear. You all have heard the troika -- fraud, waste and abuse -- blamed for all that ails states and cities. Well, an outside audit of Oklahoma's troubled prisons indicates that sometimes there's a real limit to what managers can do. The audit by MGT of America -- done at the "behest of Republican legislative leaders," according to the Tulsa World -- backs up the corrections department's contention that it's very efficiently managed. But it needs more money to do its job adequately.

The newspaper reports, "The audit found that the Department of Corrections' budget provides 'limited opportunities for significant additional savings.' The agency 'is cost-efficient by virtually every objective measure of unit costs or staffing ratios....' With one officer for approximately every nine inmates, Oklahoma has the highest ratio of inmates to staff in the region, the audit says. In some cases, the ratio is closer to one officer for every 50 inmates."

It's an honor to serve on a jury. We doubt many will argue (at least publicly) about that. But it's a pity that in many places the actual process of communicating with the courts about jury duty can be onerous. Massachusetts is doing something about this. According to a press release from the state, "Prospective jurors in Massachusetts are now the first in the country to have an online option to respond to all aspects of their jury duty summons."

Some details from the release: "Those who receive a summons in the mail can use a unique code to access the website and confirm or postpone their service, request a hardship transfer, or seek to be disqualified. They can also get courthouse information (including directions from their own home to the courthouse), and complete documents such as the mandatory demographic survey and confidential juror questionnaire."

This is a terrific, natural use for reasonably simple technology.

Laura Chick's excellent work as the city of Los Angeles' controller was featured in this space some months back. Here's the latest from her office (we bring it up because it's our guess that the issue in Los Angeles is unquestionably present in many, if not most, other large cities in America): The controller's office found that the city had spent some "$35 million to settle liability claims in 2006 because its departments lack risk management programs to identify and prevent possible lawsuits," according to a report by City News Service.

Chick argues that potential lawsuits can, and should be identified before they're ever filed. She recommends that "Two employees in the City Administrative Office should be given the task of coordinating risk management assessments with department heads.... The two would be responsible for collecting and analyzing risk data, preparing quarterly reports and providing training to department employees. The practice is referred to as Enterprise Risk Management."

We know that some cities are following this advice in one way or another. Others should take note.

With all the arguments over the "real" records of former governors running for president, we're wondering why there are debates about these things? We've been reading arguments on both sides about how the Massachusetts job situation changed under Governor Mitt Romney and how the Arkansas tax code moved under Governor Mike Huckabee. You'd think this stuff would be so clearly understood while governors are still in office, there'd be no room for counter-claims afterwards.

In our recent fulminations about the misuse of e-mail, we neglected one of the most obvious ways this technology consumes untold hours of scarce public employee time: a total misunderstanding of the "reply all" button. If people had to put multiple messages into separate envelopes (like they did in the good old days) and stamp and seal each one, they'd think twice about mass mailing dozens of insignificant comments (like "thanks, Fred") to folks who couldn't care less about the contents.

Have you ever wondered about men and women who carry an "acting" title for months and months? Why aren't they just given the job? We'd kind of thought that it was generally a function of a slow-hiring HR department. Turns out we've been a little naïve.

A report by Noelle Brennan, who has been monitoring hiring in Chicago for some time, argues that such positions can be used to circumvent the vetting process normally associated with certain positions. Chicago has a new policy in place -- thanks to Brennan's work -- that limits the time any employee could spend in an acting position to 90 days, according to the Chicago Tribune. Sounds sensible, if it's properly enforced. Brennan found one Chicago employee who had been in an acting position since the end of President Bill Clinton's first term in office.

If you care about urban violence, then be sure to take a look at an excellent new report by the Police Executive Research Forum titled "Violent Crime in America: A Tale of Two Cities." The report disaggregates crime stats and points to policies and management approaches in cities that are experiencing dramatic increases in crime as well as those with dramatic decreases. You'll learn a lot about what works. And what doesn't.

GPS systems can be used to monitor the whereabouts of a vehicle. We knew this from watching Law and Order reruns on TV. Now, we read that the Nassau Civil Service Employees Association is filing complaints about the way Nassau County (in New York) may be using these devices to keep track of employees. "Unless you are taking three-hour lunches or driving county vehicles at 80 miles an hour down residential streets, you have nothing to fear," said the county's labor relations director, according to Newsday.

We don't know exactly what we think. Except that maybe we don't want our GPS system riding with us anymore (we've named the smooth-talking device Belinda).

When we were working with a now-defunct magazine called Financial World some years back, there was an effort under way to save money on travel. Our most memorable experience with this particular effort was a trip to Richmond, Virginia, to speak to the state legislature.

There is a perfectly nice airport in Richmond. But the savings program necessitated that we fly about 500 miles to the south of Richmond, get on a second plane and fly back to Richmond. This saved the magazine about $150. From our point of view, the second flight -- on a tiny aircraft -- left us feeling sufficiently air-sick that we were barely able to make a coherent sentence for the first hour or so of the visit, and we believe that any number of legislators with whom we interacted didn't understand why anybody would care to hear anything we had to say.

Why do we dredge this up now? We think it's just a cautionary tale for states and cities that are on the constant search for ways to save money. Send an employee to a conference, but insist that she stay in a cheaper hotel 15 miles from the actual meetings? Not necessarily a bad idea, unless she has to spend an hour traveling from hotel to meeting during rush hour. Require that they take the cheapest air flight? Also sensible, unless they're killing a full day of work in the office in order to catch that bargain-basement early morning flight.

"There seems to be no end to bad news these days," wrote Governing's publisher Peter Harkness in a recent e-mail. He was referring to sad news about three people of great importance to the government management community in just the last few weeks. Keon Chi, who died in a car accident, was director of the Council of State Governments' National Center for State Governance and editor in chief of The Book of the States, the premier reference book on American state government published annually by the Council. John Parr was president of the National Civic League for a decade and then director of the Alliance for Regional Stewardship in Denver. He was killed a few weeks ago along with his wife and one of his daughters in an accident on I-80 in Wyoming. Finally, Camille Barnett's husband, a psychiatrist, was killed on I-95 on his way to Philadelphia, where she had just taken a job as Mayor Nutter's managing director.

As Peter wrote, "These people were all great contributors. Please drive safely."

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba