How to Get Employees to Sign Up for a "Voluntary" Effort

Plus: The broadband ZIP-code gap, transportation safety for emergency responders, and more
May 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Want to get employees to sign up for a "voluntary" HR effort? Here's a clever -- if somewhat manipulative -- tactic, which we came across in a piece by Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz in the New York Times: A "study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that when employers switch procedures for voluntary 401(k) contributions from 'opt in' (you sign a form to take part) to 'opt out' (you sign a form not to), rates of participation go up by as much as 30 percentage points."

With the world at large seemingly star-struck by the potential of broadband deployment to help with everything from emergency preparedness to education, it's alarming that there's a minimum of information about which neighborhoods and families actually have broadband access. Fortunately, Washington State appears to be taking "a significant step in closing that information gap by requiring its state Utilities and Transportation Commission to survey broadband access in the state," according to the Progressive States Network.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who recently wrote that "a major study by the Federal Communications Commission, using 2005 data, found that 99 percent of the country's population lived in areas with high-speed Internet access. But the data, derived from ZIP codes, assumed broadband access if just one person in the ZIP code had access. The Government Accounting Office debunked the results. The bottom line: There is no reliable information at the national level about access." For the rest of her piece, which appeared in the Puget Sound Business Journal, click here.

And while we're thinking broadly about broadband, have you noticed that it seems like the expansion of networks has been moving somewhat more slowly than anticipated? We just came across a piece from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel which says, "Frustrated aldermen double the time they're giving a local company to hook up the first neighborhood in Milwaukee's planned citywide wireless Internet network." An alderman quoted in the piece said he wasn't sure whether the delays were the company's fault or "bureaucratic foot-dragging."

We got curious about how these things work, so we asked Chris Swope, associate editor at Governing, if he had a few thoughts we could share with B&G readers. His excellent story about such networks is in the current issue of the magazine and we strongly recommend you read it.

Here's his quick take:

"Yes, a lot of these efforts are moving very slowly. Even in much-congratulated Philadelphia, they've only got a 15-square-mile test area up and running, with full city rollout not expected until later this year. Why is this? I don't know all the reasons, and surely they vary from city to city. The one universal factor is the economic reality that the cities and vendors are literally making up the rules and business models as they go along."

Fire and police departments are each in the business of getting places very quickly. And many have had great success in recent years at figuring out ways to make sure that they don't hurt their own employees -- or others -- while speeding from place to place with sirens blaring.

Unfortunately, in many cases, EMS systems haven't followed that lead. In fact, there's no consistent way in which transportation safety data for EMS systems is shared, gathered or disseminated. Partially as a result, ambulance drivers are 10 times more likely to have a claim or lawsuit filed against them for the way they operate their vehicles than for adverse medical problems.

"They operate without overarching data capture," explained Nadine Levick, research director of the EMS Safety Foundation, in a recent phone conversation. "There are occupational health and safety standards for police and fire and they cover all the risks they're exposed to because there is the data that tells what the risks are on a national level. But for EMS there's a lot of support for biohazards, and safe work environment, but when you look at the transportation component for emergency medical services or oversight, they don't usually have a transportation director."

Levick, a public health professional who was trained at Johns Hopkins, has single-handedly decided to do something about this. Her Web site may well be the only place where data and information about the transportation safety hazards of EMS ambulances is being shared. She explains that it's no surprise that EMS lags police and fire in this way. "It's the youngest of these services," she told us. "If you look at the history of development of ambulance services in America in the '50s and '60s, it was an offshoot of the mortician industry. It was another kind of vehicle you could lie down in."

There are a handful of states that are in the forefront of providing good data on this subject, Levick says. "Pennsylvania is incredibly advanced, and to some degree so is New York. Florida is another where there's a real focus on safety in the system."

This feels to us like the kind of low-hanging fruit that governments are supposed to go for. Any state legislators who think they'd like to pursue this should email Levick.

We've spent a fair amount of time thinking about user fees since writing an item about them some months ago. In part thanks to a good conversation with the University of Tennessee's Bill Fox -- one of the smartest tax experts we've ever met -- our thinking has changed somewhat, and we're now convinced that they can provide good revenue streams for all levels of government in a way that can be equitable, particularly thanks to new technology. The two caveats: They need to be priced sensibly and placed on services that users can opt out of.

We were fascinated by a piece in State Tax Notes that suggests that states and localities declare "some days of the year to be double tax days or DTD, for short." The piece was written by Mike Pagano, a good friend and director of the Graduate Program in Public Administration at the University of Illinois in Chicago. As Pagano asks, "What if demand [for a product] was so tremendous that no matter what price was asked, the consumer would gladly buy it?"

These are the opportunities, he suggests, for DTD. Take, for instance, the week before the Super Bowl. Apparently, about five times as many widescreen TVs are sold that week than in the previous week. The price of these televisions is already high, and it's hard to imagine that any of the football-fevered buyers would be deterred from making that purchase if the price went up another few percentage points.

You can just imagine the applications of Pagano's idea: double gas taxes on Memorial Day weekend; double telephone taxes on Mother's Day, double taxes on beer for the Fourth of July, and so on.

Is all of this just a Swiftian modest proposal? We don't think so. It seems to us that as more and more communities investigate congestion pricing for roads and bridges, this kind of entrepreneurial thinking is going to be increasingly popular among governments.

We owe a great debt to Charlie Peters, founding editor of the Washington Monthly. As we were first trying to come up with a format for the B&G Report, our minds immediately went to his wonderful "Tilting at Windmills" column. If ever we achieve the grace, style and wit he has over the years, we'll consider ourselves successful.

We were thinking about him just the other day, when we came across a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that went to the heart of an issue Peters has written about frequently. The study demonstrated that 94 percent "of physicians have relationships with pharmaceutical companies in which the companies provide them with food and beverages, medication samples, and other gifts and payments." As one of the study's authors was quoted as saying in the Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, "We all know that gifts and gratuities create a subconscious sense of indebtedness and they improve the likelihood of a physician using that particular drug company's brand of medicine."

We don't know whether state Medicaid officials are doing anything about this. But as they search for ways to cut the price of drugs, it sure feels like an area ripe for consideration.

The whirr, whiz and jangle of slot machines and other casino gambling games has seemed like fiscal music to the ears of many elected officials. Legislators from coast to coast appear convinced that casino gambling is a winning ticket for economic development. Nothwithstanding our belief that states are betting too much on gambling revenues (a growing number would have real difficulties balancing their budgets if gambling revenues declined), this basic supposition may not even be true.

First, bear in mind the fact that most leading economic development authorities now focus far more on growth in jobs that pay well, rather than just the growth in total jobs. Then, consider the following from a new book, Governing Fortune: Casino Gambling in America , by Edward A. Morse and Ernest P. Goss, both professors at Creighton University:

"Casinos, both tribal and commercial, create substantial job opportunities in terms of new jobs and lower unemployment rates. Furthermore, the gains tend to grow as the casino remains in the county. Contrarily, casinos reduce per capita income and the reduction gets larger as the casino remains in the county.... Additionally...casinos have not reduced the relative tax burdens of residents in states with commercial casinos."

How many citizens have any idea how to answer the question "Are we better off today than we were last year?" in reference to their city, county or state? The Association of Government Accountants has furthered the notion that this should be a pretty easy question, through work done by its Citizen-Centric Government Reporting Initiative. Last winter, it issued a very impressive piece showing how governments can accomplish this in a report that's no more than four pages long. They provide a strong case study, using Virginia Beach, demonstrating how this can be accomplished. We recommend that you take a look it.

And while your mouse-finger is active, take a look at the auditor's site from Broward County, Florida. The site is very well organized, giving easy access not just to the audit report itself but also to responses and to actions taken by the board. Are other auditors doing this? We haven't seen any, but we'd like to know if they're out there.

Last month we pontificated a bit about the outrageous fees collected for phone calls from prisons and jails. We were gratified to get the following front-line response from Robert Combs, purchasing manager for the city of Chandler, Arizona. He writes:

"Dear Katherine and Richard: I am a former county purchasing agent, having spent time in the job in Nueces County (Corpus Christi) TX. I solicited the bids for inmate phone systems. In my opinion, this is a huge rip-off for those incarcerated and a big money maker for the county. Inmates could only make collect calls at higher than normal collect call rates, and the county received a large rebate. It is unconscionable and as you noted, limits the calls an inmate can make to family (a very important link to good behavior), friends, attorneys, etc.

I do not believe in coddling prisoners...but I don't believe in generating revenue from those who aren't producing income while they are jailed. Families are made to pay the higher rates when most often, the main income producer is in lockup."

Many people complain that institutions of higher education in the United States are thoroughly unaccountable -- and that one result is that they're not educating the future teachers of America properly. The obvious solution: Pass a law. The problem, according to an excellent piece by Kevin Carey in an online report by Education Sector, is that "such a law has already been on the books for nearly a decade. It just hasn't worked very well, because most states have chosen to create accountability systems that have never identified a single teacher education program as needing improvement."

He's referring, of course, to the Higher Education Act of 1998, which required that states "have in place a procedure to identify, and assist through the provision of technical assistance, low-performing programs of teacher preparation within institutions of higher education."

The whole program rests on the states' determination and disclosure of low-performing programs and programs that are at risk of becoming low performing. As Carey writes, "Thirty-one states have never identified a single teacher preparation program as at-risk or low-performing under HEA. This is not because their colleges and universities are doing the best job preparing teachers to succeed in the classroom. It's because in most cases, their accountability systems deliberately circumvent the spirit of the law."

"Ventura County: A Failure to Audit" is the title of a recently released report by the Ventura County (California) 2006-2007 Grand Jury. It indicates that an embezzlement scandal in the Treasurer-Tax Collector's Office in 2005 might have been uncovered earlier if only the auditor's office had the money to do its job properly. As the report states, "since 2003, the Auditor-Controller's Audit Division has lost more than half of its staffing, with an almost total loss of experienced senior auditors." Articles in the local press subsequent to the report's release feature local officials blaming one another for the short-staffing of the auditor's office.

We're not in a position to place blame on anyone specifically -- nor is that a particularly useful exercise for the B&G Report. What is clear is that unless the empty positions in the auditor's office are filled, nobody should be surprised when undetected problems suddenly erupt. You can read the full audit report for yourself here.

Portland, Oregon, is the last city in the United States with a population over 100,000 to still use the so-called commission form of city government. It works this way: The city has a mayor and four publicly elected commissioners who share executive power over the city's various bureaus. In addition, they serve as the legislative branch, with the mayor assigning responsibility for specific bureaus.

But change may be coming. Next Tuesday, May 15, citizens will vote on Measure 2691. If passed, executive power in Portland will be centralized under the mayor and a chief administrative officer appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. The mayor would appoint bureau directors with council approval.

We were curious about this measure, in part because we've always been impressed at the way Portland has been run -- and we never really thought about its system of government. Our interest was further piqued because this issue seemed to get at the heart of questions about centralized versus decentralized government in general. While trying to get some sense of the issues involved, we came across a recent debate, sponsored by the City Club of Portland.

Robert Ball, a Portland historic developer, was on hand to support the measure. He argued that centralizing executive power would save the city millions by increasing managerial accountability and cutting down on inefficiency and redundancy. Within the current government, apparently, there are departments that perform similar work, use different payroll systems, have over 300 shadow computer systems, and suffer from a variety of other bureaucratic inefficiencies. These could be eliminated, he believes, by holding the departments more accountable to a central power instead of the diverse cultures of individual bureaus.

On the flip side, Chris Smith, a citizen activist, acknowledged that the commission form has flaws, but believes that adopting measure 2691 would equate to "throwing the baby out with the bath water." He claimed that much of Portland's success is due to the creativity allowed by the commission system -- a commissioner's authority over his or her own department allows freedom in how they pursue specific goals. Smith concluded that while incremental changes may be implemented to reduce inefficiency and increase interdepartmental cooperation, the results produced by elected officials who are directly accountable to the public speak for themselves.

To hear the debate in its entirety, click here and then click on the April 27 debate.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba