Does Handheld Tech Actually Make Your Job Harder?

Plus: Relaxing Oversight on State Contracts, Making Referendum Signatures Public, And More
July 8, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Government Technology recently ran a well-written article that first listed many of the remarkable benefits that personal electronics, such as cell phones and PDAs, have brought us. It then brought up a point that we've been wondering about: The "flip side to the convenience of being able to work from anywhere is that we're constantly connected, or as some say, tethered to the office. In many cases, that's driving an expectation that employees will be available 24/7."

We're wondering how true that is of you. With a pocket full of efficiency-raising gadgets, are you working harder than you used to? Less hard? Some combination of the two? Let us know what you think at

You'd have thought the imprisonment of former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland for improper procurements would have been all the impetus necessary for thoroughgoing reform in the state. Sadly, according to a piece in the Connecticut Mirror by Keith Phaneuf, "A lack of funding again is plaguing state government's 'Clean Contracting' system, this time hindering an oversight board's ability to determine when state agencies can hire private-sector workers."

This board was originally envisioned as the centerpiece of a system developed by Gov. Jodi Rell and the General Assembly to deal with problems with contractors. But the board "was granted a $665,000 budget in the 2008-09 fiscal year, during which it was supposed to prepare for full-scale operations in 2009-10. But both Rell and legislative leaders were slow in appointing board members, and most of those dollars went unspent.

"Similarly, most of this fiscal year's $775,000 allocation for the board was canceled to help close overall budget deficits. And the $950,100 budget originally planned for the board for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was replaced last month with a token $10,001 — large enough only to handle board meeting costs and to keep the agency's budget line item open."

Pretty short memories in the Nutmeg State, we'd say.

Should referendum petition signatures be made public? Just a couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the answer is "yes." The case before them was focused on Referendum 71, a 2009 effort to overturn a Washington State law that gives gay and lesbian couples the same rights as married couples.

We can't help but think of the ruling's implications for various fiscal issues in which referenda have restrained state legislatures' capacity to manage. Colorado's TABOR amendment comes to mind. A little more transparency in that process sounds like a good thing to us.

Are states and cities sufficiently concerned about cyber-terrorism and other homeland-security threats? We can't really answer that question. But according to the very wise Susan Clarke, professor of political science at the University of Colorado, it's abundantly clear that they're not thinking of it nearly as much as they used to. She told us that a few years ago, homeland security was one of the top items on the agendas of many government leaders. Now, she says, "there's been this amazing shift from putting a major emphasis on homeland security to number 33 or 34."

Clarke explains, "It's not surprising, because it is one of these high impact/low probability issues. If it happens, the impact is enormous, but odds are good that it won't happen in any specific place. Local officials are trying to make that calculation."

In real-world terms, this lack of emphasis has resulted in many localities backing away from preventive measures (with the obvious exception of New York City and perhaps a few other places).

Is this a smart cost-benefit calculation? Only time will tell. It'll be very smart unless your city happens to be the one that's hit by a terrorist attack of any kind.

It's always a tragedy when a young athlete whom everyone assumed to be healthy falls victim to sudden cardiac death (SCD). "Many U.S. school districts now require high school athletes to submit to a pre-participation physical exam before being allowed to play sports," according to a study done at the University of Houston. "That exam may include an electrocardiogram (ECG) to screen for heart abnormalities that could lead to SCD."

At first, that seems like a terrific idea. But the study argues that this practice may not actually detect the abnormalities it's looking for and may not be a worthwhile use of time or money. According to Dan O'Connor, assistant professor of health and human performance, "about 16 percent of high school athletes would have a positive ECG, but very few of those would actually have the cardiac abnormalities that could lead to SCD." O'Connor also adds, "For every teenage boy who actually has a cardiac abnormality and who is identified by ECG screening, about 50 boys with no abnormalities may have a positive ECG, which will often require further medical testing to rule out disease. If we add up the estimated total costs of administering the ECG and the subsequent medical tests for false positive results of the 2 to 3 million athletes entering high school each year in the U.S., it could exceed $126 million."

Is it worth it? Any parent whose child is genuinely at risk might persuasively argue that $126 million is cheap for that single bit of preventative testing. Policymakers, on the other hand, have to consider the cost-benefit ratios, and whether the same money could be used to save even more lives, in another way.

We just think it's important for people to be thinking about this kind of thing.

Regionalism is one of those concepts that pretty much everyone agrees is a good idea, but very few communities really achieve (much like long-term weight loss). University of Colorado professor Susan Clarke, quoted in an earlier item, points out that homeland security is one field in which regional approaches could be far more effective and sensible than those that take place town by town, city by city.

Of course, interoperability of technology stands in the way of cities working together well on a variety of fronts. And we've long seen another obstacle: Regional approaches often mean that one individual needs to give up some authority to another one. Guess who doesn't like that? Of course, some cities have been pretty good on this front — Denver is one that comes to mind — but this is clearly an idea that needs a fresh jolt of enthusiasm, cooperation and new ideas, given the limited resources that individual communities can bring to bear on any particular item.

Einstein, Steinbeck and Patton. Here are three quotes we've come across in the last couple of weeks that we thought you would appreciate:

"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts." — Albert Einstein

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen." — John Steinbeck

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." — General George Patton

If we were teaching a civics class (and maybe someday, someone will invite us to do so), we'd show a film of one of Washington State's accountability forums. They're held monthly with the governor in attendance, and more frequently than that at an agency level. They present an opportunity for the governor and her leadership team to question and guide agency heads regarding a variety of management issues. Recently, as we reported elsewhere, the subject was the Recovery Act. It was incredibly revealing, and it gives great insight into how government works and how it can work.

Public Civility Corner. We've been waiting for a reader to bring up something that's long bothered us, under the broad rubric of "public civility." But that hasn't happened yet. So we thought we'd just bring it up ourselves: Why aren't people trained — by their bosses or parents — to say, "I'm sorry," in order to deflect another person's annoyance?

This is an issue throughout society, not just in the public sector. People miss deadlines, for example, and the response is to place the blame someplace else. Honestly, we're not looking for a nice, "I'm sorry," because we think the person with whom we're in contact is at fault. We think they should apologize on behalf of the organization, be it a city, state or large electronics chain whose name we won't mention.

Our point is this: Whether it's a receptionist, secretary, clerk or temp dealing with the public on behalf of cities, counties or states, they should know that they're representing the entire entity.