Is Your Government an Ethical Place?

Plus: Generational conflicts in the workplace, how building maintenance reduces staff turnover, and more
February 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

The B&G Interview: Questions for John Turcotte, director of the North Carolina General Assembly Program Evaluation Division

Is your state, city or county an ethical place? Tell us what you think. We just came across a study done by the Ethics Resource Center that indicates that only about 7 percent of state employees perceived themselves to be working in a truly ethical culture. At the local level, 9 percent said they thought so. We're kind of dubious about these numbers. We'd like to hear what you think about the ethics quotient for your employer -- and other governments as well.

Generational conflicts in the workplace are everywhere. Consider this observation that was passed on to us by Doug Whitworth, a 30-something auditor in Austin. Turns out that younger auditors are eager to get audit results out more quickly, while older auditors want to increase documentation requirements and add steps to the review process.

"If we want to be responsive to policy makers we need to have our audit reports done more quickly," Whitworth says, "but there's an old-guard approach that wants to get more and more support in a document so it's bulletproof when it comes out."

This theme was also the topic of "The Nexters," an essay by Brandon Haynes, an auditor from the City of Atlanta, in the online quarterly publication of the Association of Local Government Auditors.

Just a few days ago, we were writing an article that addressed, at different points, two very different management issues: the problem of workforce turnover in the public sector and the absence of sufficient maintenance dollars for government buildings.

But we didn't see the connection between the two until we ran across a survey done by Blumberg Capital Partners, an investment firm and commercial real estate manager. According to its study, four out of five workers perceived their employers, in part, based on the quality of their office space. One in three indicated that they had "either accepted or left a job due to the condition of the building and/or the amenities offered."

Our conclusion: One way to cut turnover rates is by keeping up on regular building maintenance. If we're right, that should be an incentive for states and cities to plug up those leaky roofs and keep the mice away.

Overcrowded prisons have been a real problem for Oklahoma. There are, of course, a number of ways to deal with this issue, and many states are exploring it carefully. But Oklahoma could make some headway simply by bringing its system in line with those of the other 49 states. It turns out that this is the only state in which the governor's signature is required on each and every parole decision, according to The Oklahoman.

Auditors of the state's correctional system have recommended that process be changed, as it seems to slow down paroles. Some just wind up stuck on the governor's desk. In other cases, the governor may disagree with the recommendations of the parole commission. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but it leads to dramatic inconsistency. The current governor, Brad Henry, had an 18.9 percent parole-approval rate in 2006; that's way different than the state's 1998 parole-approval low of 7.5 percent or its 1991 high of 41 percent.

We call it the Seattle Syndrome. The concept is simple and incredibly common: Governments that manage themselves very well tend to be full of self-criticisms about the things they don't do. That's because they're sophisticated enough to know what their problems are. Conversely, states and cities that aren't doing a very good job don't know that they aren't, and think that they are. We first came across this phenomenon years ago, when Seattle officials were lamenting the sorry state of their management. Turned out theirs was one of the best-managed cities around at the time.

A little more on meetings. This came in a couple of months back, responding to our comments about time-wasting meetings. We've been intending to share it ever since. It was sent by Tom Sadowski, the very thoughtful director of accounting for the state of Missouri:

The number one time waster is having no one in charge. If it is your meeting, be clear on the agenda and move things along. Sometimes you have to be the Moses -- let my people go!

Also, make sure you know why people are in the meeting and make sure they know too. Is it just so they are informed or do they have a role?

One way that states have tried to help give citizens access to public records has been by setting up so-called "public access counselor" positions. But a piece by Jeff Parrott in the South Bend Tribune indicates that just setting up the job doesn't necessarily deliver results. A survey of people who had disputes with government agencies about access to records and meetings uncovered the fact that "nearly 91 percent of respondents want Indiana's public access counselor ... to have enforcement power, which could include the authority to fine violators and issue subpoenas."

According to the article, "Connecticut and Utah are the only two states in which state public access agencies can require release of records." In Texas and Kentucky, attorneys general can do so.

Health care has been one of the biggest local-government budget-busters for years now. Seems to us like a lot of new treatments get increased use when journalists write about them as silver bullets -- and this costs states money in a variety of ways. With that in mind, we welcome the work being done by the nonprofit Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making. Researchers provide reviews about health-related pieces in the press -- and find many of them to be faulty, with the benefits of new research often overblown or exaggerated.

Idaho has a well-deserved reputation as a state run with high fiscal standards. But the legislature missed a good opportunity in January to make things better. According to the Spokesman Review, "After six months' study of Idaho's huge array of tax exemptions, the first run at actually repealing any hit a brick wall Thursday in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. ... The value of Idaho's exemptions from the sales tax total more than its sales tax collections, and the number of exemptions and credits from all Idaho taxes grows each year."

We can't really say which exemptions are reasonable and which aren't. But we do feel confident that a sales tax system is far better when it resembles a good brick of cheddar, rather than a slice of Swiss cheese.

Observant readers may have noticed more than a smattering of items over the past six months that were drawn from NewsDash, the excellent daily compilation of news that comes from NewsDash is aimed at people who are responsible for employee benefit plans, but many items also target the wider personnel area and the even broader topic of human nature. About 85 percent of the news deals with the private sector, but we frequently find news of interest to the public sector as well. Nevin Adams, Plansponsor's editor in chief, started NewsDash before it became a Plansponsor publication in 1999 and was clipping and underlining magazines and newspapers to share with colleagues long before the Internet put e-mail alerts and search engines at his disposal.

While working briefly in West Virginia some years back, we became aware of a fellow named Moe, who made a pretty penny every couple of years by distributing five-dollar bills to men and women in exchange for their votes. He got a buck for everyone he delivered to the polls. We have no idea how much of this kind of thing still goes on. But we have been suckers for anything titled "campaign finance reform." Sounds like Mom and Apple Pie to us.

So it was a surprise to hear about some unexpected impacts of this reform on a recent trip to Minnesota, where we got to mingle with a large group of legislators. Turns out the lawmakers' comments weren't about contribution restrictions, but about the reform's impact on legislators' relations with each other. Rules prohibit third-party-funded social activities that used to bring legislators together, like attending Twins games in a group. The intent was to keep lawmakers from favoring the folks who were buying them tickets and hot dogs. The side effect, our sources told us, is that legislators hardly ever have non-pressured social time together these days. Has this led directly to recent infighting in the Minnesota legislature? Probably not. But it may well contribute.

Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell proposed in early February that the state divide its Department of Transportation into two separate agencies by 2010; a Department of Highways and a Department of Public Transportation, Aviation and Ports. We're sure the governor has good reasons for making this move. We just wanted to send a quick cautionary note to our friends in the Nutmeg State: If you're going to split the department in this way, please make sure that you've set up good means for the two new agencies to work well together. For years, states have been talking about "multi-modal" approaches to transportation as the key to avoiding duplication and efficiently using tax dollars. But that effort relies on strong communication between the agencies in charge of the different modes of transportation.

We know this isn't a trivial matter, but we noticed a small factoid in a Washington Post piece a few weeks back about D.C. government employees who were being fired for viewing pornography on their work computers. The fact? Three of these workers were apparently looking at "inappropriate sexual images" an average of about 200 times per work day in 2007. Assuming an eight-hour day, that's once every two and a half minutes.

Our question is this: Were these people working in closets? Notwithstanding the issues involved with such a blatant waste of taxpayer-paid time, we'd like to know how a manager could possibly have missed this kind of relentless show of digitized body parts.

Careful readers may recall that we fulminated a bit last month about counterproductive restrictions on travel for government employees. We got some response to this, and our favorite was the following, from a reader in New Mexico who requested that she not be identified:

It seems that many government agencies impose blanket rules without applying thought or common sense to the rule. ... In this agency, out-of-state travel requires a higher-level approval than in-state travel does; cost is not a factor in this equation. Thus, when traveling to meetings in El Paso, staying on the New Mexico side of the state line only requires lower level approval, but staying 100 yards away on the Texas side of the state line requires more paperwork. Even staying at an expensive hotel in Santa Fe does not require higher level approval. It would seem a more common sense approach would establish a maximum daily cost as the deciding factor.

And while we're in inbox mode, we'd like to call your attention to the item in last month's B&G Report that asked whether anyone was keeping track of the number of people actually watching newly required audio or video recordings of government meetings.

One reader wrote back to tell us that she thought this was a silly question -- that it doesn't matter who's listening or watching any more than it matters who's reading written reports. We disagree because we think it matters quite a lot whether someone is reading the written reports, too.

We were intrigued that The Thicket, the excellent National Conference of State Legislatures blog, took our item as a jumping-off point for investigating what states know about the actual number of viewers.

"For state legislatures, the answer is that many do have the numbers on how many people watch legislative proceedings on the Internet, and the numbers are interesting," Pam Greenberg wrote. For example, Barry LaGrave, director of public information services for the Minnesota House of Representatives, provided her with the following figures:

For calendar year 2007, the Minnesota House had: 111,754 combined hits to the live and archive webcast streams, averaging 306 hits per day. . . Average play duration of live and archive streams was 29 minutes, 27 seconds.... Barry notes that their top 'hit' day was April 26, 2007 (6,024 hits), when they had a two-part, 10-hour floor session debate of the omnibus tax bill and the statewide smoking ban bill.

Greenberg continued with numbers from other states.

Washington's TVW televises and webcasts government proceedings. TVW produces more than 2,000 hours of original programming annually, of which about 40 percent is legislative coverage. TVW reports that "2006 and 2007 statewide polls of registered voters by Elway Research show that 22 percent of registered voters in Washington State, some 800,000 people, had watched TVW within the last 2 weeks."

The Virginia Senate has about 70-100 daily users of its streaming video coverage (not including staff and others in the Senate, House of Delegates and Legislative Agencies who watch on the Capitol Campus). Jonathan Palmore of Senate Information Services also reports that the Senate has an audio only stream that has about 20 users daily.

Maine provides video coverage of legislative proceedings. Paul Mayotte, Director of the Office of Information Services, was able to report that from the beginning of January 2008 through January 24, the Maine Senate registered more than 700 connections, had close to 200 unique viewers, and averaged more than 30 daily viewers. Average play duration was close to 20 minutes. Keep in mind that Maine is early in its session -- these statistics cover just eight floor sessions that did not average more than an hour.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba