For Good Data, Context Counts

Robbing pensions to pay Paul, making customers happy while they wait, and more
September 24, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Let's say that someone told you that a hospital had a pneumonia survival rate of 93 percent. And let's assume that you, like us, have no medical training at all. That 93 percent figure sounds pretty good, doesn't it? We're checking in! But what if you discovered that, relative to other hospitals, this was merely a "fair" survival rate, and that a genuinely "good" rate would be between 95 percent and 98 percent? We're checking out.

This was part and parcel of the findings of a recent study by the American Psychological Association that underlines our frequent admonitions to governments that performance measures lose a great deal of meaning without context and analysis. According to a release from the APA, "Better use of quality-of-care ratings can lead to greater consumer control, more effective health care choices, and provider competition over quality control instead of cost. ... When participants [in four different studies] saw quality ratings expressed in context, in ranges such as 'good,' 'fair' and 'poor,' they weighted quality more and cost less than participants who saw the same numbers out of context."

On September 14, the Washington Post ran an editorial contrasting budgeting in Maryland and Virginia. The paper applauded Virginia for genuine cutting of expenses over the long term in order to balance its budget, but it critiqued Maryland for taking a shorter-term view. As much as we respect and admire the Post, we have a quibble. Among the things the paper congratulated Virginia for was cutting contributions to its pension plan. We looked into it for a bit, and discovered that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine's proposal was to defer paying one-quarter of the state's annual contribution to the pension plan. Maybe this is budgetarily sound. Maybe not. But it sure doesn't look like a long-term cut to us.

Don't you like it when you're on hold for some kind of customer service and a recording tells you how long the wait is going to be? We sure do. But we've never come across a government phone line that does this. Maybe some do (and if your city, county or state does, please let us know at But we wonder why this hasn't become a commonly used tool for governments that are eager to stop unnecessarily antagonizing their citizens.

The current tough economy has city and state officials focusing on big-ticket savings. And that makes sense. But there's an awful lot of money out there, practically lying on the floors, if only localities took the time to pick it up. The city of Palo Alto, California, for example, has been spending some 32 cents per minute for state-to-state long distance calls, reports city auditor Lynda Flores Brouchoud. According to Brouchoud, that's more than 13 times the average rate paid by neighbors. The city could save an estimated $235,000 on its $545,000 annual phone bill by cutting high monthly service charges, improving an inefficient billing process, eliminating unnecessary calls and so on.

About one in five states is resorting to furloughs to save money. But does that extreme measure really work? A recent piece on National Public Radio sheds some doubt on the policy, at least as it's working in California. As NPR's Rachel Dornhelm reports, "Economists have yet to determine just how effective furloughs are as a tool for state cost-saving. It is beginning to appear that a decline in spending, and therefore tax revenue, and the drop in efficiency associated with furloughs may offset their value."

Our next management column in Governing , which comes out in early October, deals with missing or misleading data. It's too late for us to change the column now, but we just came across a wonderful example of a significant piece of data that's nonexistent in many states: graduation rates for young people learning English as a second language. According to Education Week , "Across the country, high school graduation rates are bemoaned with regularity. But many states and districts aren't even tracking the rate for the fastest-growing population of students, or if they are, they aren't telling the public how many English-language learners are leaving school with a diploma."

As Education Week explains, "The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to rectify that. Now, nearly eight years after its passage, 13 states and numerous districts still don't report that information to the U.S. Department of Education. And some of those that do are offering numbers that may not be entirely accurate."

Sometimes you can't win. You aren't allowed to lose. And you can't quit the game. That was our reaction to the following comments from the excellent California Progress Report, which explains that "the Public Policy Institute of California's latest report finds that while Californians' trust in their state government has reached a record low and their desire for change is high, they are cautious about the types of reforms they are willing to support."

In other words, the public thinks this: The state is doing a lousy job and needs to fix things immediately, but not if that requires changing things, because they'll just make them worse.

Seems to us like a number of the problems California confronts these days are the tainted fruit of seeds planted in ballot-box initiatives approved by the voters. And while we can't quite say the state has been a model of good management, we do feel sympathy for the folks there trying to fix things.

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

You may recall our announcement that the Manager's Reading List would now be included in alternate B&G Reports. Another change: We're interested, as well, in hearing about podcasts, DVDs and any other kinds of electronic book-equivalents.

To kick that new theme off, here's a thought from Linda Camp, former manager in contract and analysis services for the City of St. Paul and now a consultant with Turning Point Consulting. She recommends the film, "Miracle." As she writes, "It is a great case study about both management and leadership. [The film chronicles] Herb Brooks' efforts to build the US hockey team that wound up winning the gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Lots of thought provoking moments."

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

Cities from coast to coast have increasingly turned to parking tickets as a means of getting more money in tough times. According to MSNBC's Red Tape Chronicles, cities are "raising ticket prices, hiring more citation officers, turning to gimmicky technologies ... all in a desperate effort to shrink budget gaps."

Notwithstanding the tri-annual parking ticket we get in New York, we think this is a perfectly reasonable idea. One of the major reasons cities have parking meters is to make sure that commercial enterprises without their own parking lots can attract customers. If folks can camp out in front of parking meters for indefinite periods, with little risk of getting a ticket, that defeats the whole purpose.

The fact that city officials are increasingly talking about parking tickets as a revenue raiser doesn't seem to be such a bad thing to us. The option is not enforcing a law that exists. But here's the wrinkle. What if cities are successful in convincing parkers that they're likely to get ticketed if they don't feed the meter or park in a legal spot? That would mean that revenues would decline. So we're just hoping that cities aren't counting on this as a long-term means of raising cash. And we'll bet that they are.

Boondoggles. You know what they are. But where did the word come from? The answer qualifies as our favorite factoid of the month, and it comes from a New York Times article that we just stumbled across (via NCSL's Thicket blog):

"Before it became a bad word, 'boondoggle' was an innocent, humble craft. It was the Boy Scouts of America who claimed credit for coining the word, to refer to the plaited leather lanyards that they made and wore around their necks. That all changed on April 3, 1935, at a hearing in New York City on how New Deal relief money was being spent. A Brooklyn crafts teacher reluctantly testified that he was paid to show the jobless how to make 'boon doggles.' The outcry was swift. '$3,187,000 Relief is Spent to Teach Jobless to Play,' trumpeted a front-page headline the next day in the New York Times. '"Boon Doggles" Made.'

"A new, more sinister meaning was born, and the word came to signify government make-work, later referring to wasteful government projects in general."

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan