Dusty Data

Plus: Getting a fix on the price of government, one state that's all smiles right now, and more
August 20, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

We just bought a record player (when was the last time you heard those words?) that allows us to play 78s. For the most part, though, the 78s from our parents' generation are now largely unplayable. This would appear to be the ultimate fate of virtually every form of media storage available (including the stack of big old floppy disks we have hanging around). So we were really interested when we ran across a query from Mike Taylor, the city auditor for Stockton, California, on the Association of Local Government Auditors listserv. He wanted to know how long folks could anticipate being able to use media stored on CDs.

Good question. But the answers he got ranged from five years to a hundred years. Taylor himself indicated that he had looked online for the answer, and found a range of two to 200 years.

Shouldn't this be a question for which there is an absolutely clear answer? It seems really important. And so we turn to our B&G brain trust to see if there are any authoritative answers out there. Anybody got a straight answer? E-mail us!

Maybe all state governments should do this. Minnesota has a requirement to produce an annual "Price of Government" report, which looks at the total amount of money that citizens pay in taxes to the state, local governments and school districts. This is recorded, over time, as a percentage of personal income. Seems like a useful figure to us.

"Are people ticked off at government?" That's the question we asked in the last edition of the B&G Report. We've gotten back a host of responses and will be featuring a round-up in a few weeks. In the meantime, we wanted to share the very first response we got -- just minutes after the B&G Report was sent out in the Management newsletter. It came from a budget officer, and read: "I am pretty happy with the Governor and legislature here in North Dakota. Most state employees received a 5% increase July 1 with some employees receiving additional equity compensation."

As you'll see soon, this wasn't typical. But it wasn't surprising either, considering the source. As a local news report put it recently, "North Dakota's economy is bouncing along -- ignoring the deep recession gripping most of the U.S." Its unemployment rate is less than half the national average. The message is clear: Ticked-offedness is directly correlated to a bum economy.

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

For a slight change of pace, this edition of the Manager's Reading List doesn't feature a specific recommendation, but rather a link to Wisconsin's excellent "Tap the Power" newsletter, which has just put out its latest installment of favorite books recommended by Wisconsin legislators and legislative staff. Check it out for some management must-reads.

Read the full archive of Manager's Reading List suggestions.

How to hang on to IT staff? Very few states, counties or cities want competent IT workers to leave their jobs. Although the recession may have led to some loosening of the job market, once a technology expert is familiar with the workings of a particular entity, she's worth her weight in gold-sheathed silicon. Enter the University of Arkansas, where professors Margaret Reid and Myria Allen, along with colleagues at Baylor University and Florida State University, have some answers. In a presentation they've put together, the academics offer some keys to hanging on to these cherished employees. Among their suggestions: Help employees avoid becoming exhausted from overwork; provide an environment that is conducive to continual learning and change; make sure they work for knowledgeable managers; and provide the chance to receive cross-training. The absence of these elements is responsible for a big chunk of IT turnover.

Interested in saving money on health care? Or maybe just improving the quality of health care? Take a look at the Web site for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Its Health Care Innovations Exchange is illuminating and occasionally even inspirational.

To chalk or not to chalk? About 20 years ago, a controversy erupted in our small community at Waterside Plaza in New York City. Children (including our own) enjoyed drawing with chalk on the concrete plaza that links a few high-rise apartment buildings. The kids' designs were automatically erased with the rain. Some adults believed that the youngsters' artwork was unsightly and might even be tracked home onto their carpeting. A tenants' meeting was called, in which we were leading the pro-chalking coalition. We realized that this matter would eventually come to a vote. Our forces were in the minority. So we sent our allies -- notably one strong-willed chap who seemingly knew everyone in the world -- to gather all the parents of young children he could find. Slowly but surely we had a majority present. And we won the vote.

It's only in recent months that we've become aware that our career in policymaking at the chalky level is not dissimilar from the way many real policies are made, particularly in localities. Call together a hearing to talk about bike paths, say, and the anti-bike path folks only need to gather more voices in order to send their message most powerfully to the officials present. Such meetings aren't a matter of better arguments, statistics or logic. They are all about who shows up.

What profession would you guess makes up the largest portion of state legislators? Bet you thought "attorneys." Well, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, that's not true any more: "Full-time Legislators have now become the largest occupational group in legislatures with 16.4 percent of legislators classifying themselves as such. Previously, attorneys had been the largest occupational group, but that profession has decreased substantially over the last three decades from about 25 percent in the mid-seventies to only about 15 percent today. Retired persons make up the third largest occupational group in legislatures at approximately 12 percent." Don't know exactly what this means for management or policy, but it's surely a trend worth knowing.

Two sides to every story: And under that heading falls this note we just got from Andrew Murray, the deputy director of city performance in San Francisco's controller's office. He writes:

"Thank you for the piece on the Civil Grand Jury. Given the complexity of government operations these days, it's a daunting task for a group of citizens to quickly understand and evaluate operations and policy. Some of their reports bring needed attention to important issues and provide valuable, original insights and recommendations. However, some seem to ultimately miss the mark. Note that while in May 2009 the Civil Grand Jury criticized San Francisco's performance measurement process as '"utterly simplistic, noticeably ineffective, and a purely symbolic sham" (as described in Behn's Seven Errors),' in July 2009 San Francisco received its first Certificate of Distinction from the ICMA Center for Performance Measurement. ICMA has a better track record in this business... "

John Sununu is, of course, the former governor of New Hampshire and chief of staff to the first President Bush. We had an illuminating conversation with him about his years as governor of New Hampshire, and particularly liked this piece of wisdom: "If being a leader is too easy, there's a good chance you're a follower."

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan