Does Rudeness Get Results?

Plus: Civics Boot Camps, Quotables, And More
April 8, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

In our experience as journalists, a surprising number of people seem to think that a rude response to something we've written is an effective way to get our attention. We were wondering whether the same is true when public managers get e-mails, letters, phone calls complaining about a government function. We were also curious as to how you tended to respond to vitriol as opposed to a gracious complaint. E-mail us and let us know. And by the way, in this case, if we want to excerpt from your responses, we won't use any names or titles.

"If we don't teach citizens their responsibilities, we will have irresponsible citizens," wrote one B&G Report reader to us a couple of weeks back. This was part of a response to our request for people to share good civics programs for young people with us. We're delighted to report that we heard about a number of interesting formal programs and resources -- as well as a number of people who pointed to school districts that invite state and local officials from varying positions to speak to classes about why they entered government, what their job entails and so on.

Governing events and program manager Heather Kerrigan went through dozens of e-mails and assembled a list of civics education programs across the country. Please note that this is not an inclusive list, by any means. It's just a compilation of many of the programs B&G Readers told us about. Thanks to everyone who wrote in -- you were a remarkably enthusiastic bunch. And our apologies to anyone whose submission was not included.

Quote corner: "There are intelligent adults in the world who go to bed each night believing that the other side tells lies, but their side is above all that." -- Peter Gordon, professor in the University of California's School of Policy, Planning and Development

"Implementation is the short suit of America's governments." -- Richard Nathan, former director of the Rockefeller Institute

College football coaches are wildly overpaid. At least that's what we've thought for a long time, when we read about dozens of coaches -- many of them at state universities -- making in excess of $1 million a year. But now we're having second thoughts.

A new study out of the University of Michigan shows that college football may be one of the few recession-resistant sources of income for universities. "Fans are crazy about college football," reported Rodney Fort, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology.

He goes on: "In the current recession, the primary impact has been on portfolios. College football fans happen to be at that income level where their disposable income hasn't been hit hard. Their portfolios are taking dramatic hits but their actual ability to pay mortgages and electric bills is still intact." And so they can keep going to the big game. Rah.

Did you have some kind of party on March 15? That was the day that the first dot-com address was registered 25 years ago, in 1985. (And if you did have a party, we hope you served chips).

This anniversary inspired us to think about the truly incredible progress that states, cities and counties have made in their own Web sites -- over a much shorter time span. Back in 1998, we recall, Texas was considered to be one of the leaders in its use of Web sites. Using the "Wayback Machine," a part of the non-profit Internet Archive, we found the Texas state Web site from that year. Take a look at what cutting edge looked like a dozen years ago, and compare it to the current Texas site. (And then, consider how difficult it is to engage in long-range planning for high-tech tools).

Just wondering: PhillyStat is a relatively new operation in Philadelphia. The effort has required agencies to focus more on performance measurements, through regular high-level meetings and monthly or quarterly reports. Its leader, the well-known Camille Barnett, has resigned her position as the city's managing director, where she was spearheading the effort. We think programs like PhillyStat have enormous potential, and we'll be watching to see what happens to the progress in Philadelphia after her departure.

Budgeting fireworks? When we asked B&G Readers to consider the fiscal sense of funding fireworks and other social events during tough economic times, the responses came pouring in. Many agreed with Chicago's decision to cut its Grant Park fireworks, given budgetary constraints. In the next B&G Report, we'll be featuring some excerpts as well as some more comments from consultant and former city manager Jerry Newfarmer, whose piece in Public Management inspired our item.

Meantime, we just couldn't wait to share the response that we found most engaging. It came from Carol Bearce, financial specialist senior from the Idaho State Controller's Office. She wrote, "I can see both sides of the argument, and as a government employee, appreciate the dilemma. However, maybe Chicago could still put on a fireworks display and not spend as much money as in the past. Sometimes we get to the point where every year (or period) has to be significantly bigger and better than the last. We price ourselves out of the market.

"A small-town festival was begun in the City of Boise many years ago to celebrate the beautiful river running through town (although not paid for with city funds). This was a three-day festival in the city parks along the banks of the Boise River. Local musicians played, local dance studio students performed, food vendors plied their wares, we had a parade, hot air balloon festival, and one fireworks show capped the last evening. Within five or six years, the festival had grown to the point the festival had been 'discovered.' Hundreds of thousands of people attended over five or six days and trampled the riverbank, big-name musicians were hired to play several huge concerts, and eventually the cost got to the point the festival folded. Folks in Boise still talk about the River Festival with fondness. Personally, I really enjoyed the early years before the festival became unsustainable."

Despite the efforts on the part of the Census Department to persuade people that filling out their form really counts, we never had any idea quite how much those reports matter, until we ran across a report by the Brookings Institution. Here's what it had to say (and we'll bet you'll be surprised, too): "To illustrate the fiscal impact of decennial census accuracy, each additional person included in the Census 2000 resulted in an annual additional Medicaid reimbursement to most states of between several hundred and several thousand dollars, depending on the state."

Old song, new words: The absence of follow-through on many government estimates has long troubled us. Aside from awareness when revenue estimates go awry (because that requires budgetary action), we're not aware of many instances in which cities or states go back to see whether the number that seemed true on New Year's Day still was accurate by Easter.

One example of this phenomenon hadn't occurred to us until we read a recent entry in The Numbers Guy blog from the Wall Street Journal. The piece looked at the accuracy of economic estimates that are associated with natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes.

According to the post, "the early estimates...often miss the mark." For example, estimates of the fiscal impact of 2005's Hurricane Wilma were short of the accurate count in part because "owners of second homes in the affected region didn't file some claims until later in the process. Also, replacing lanai -- screened outdoor enclosures -- proved much more expensive than anticipated."

Apparently, one problem with making these estimates has come to be called "demand surge." According to the WSJ piece, sudden increases in demand for contractors can lead to unanticipated cost increases.