Keeping Meetings Meaningful

Plus: Roadblocks to shared services, private-sector succession planning, and more
December 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Last month we asked you to share tips that would help others keep meetings short and productive. A number of you wrote in with some really terrific ideas. Others seemed to enjoy the opportunity to vent. One writer suggested that not everyone even wants productive meetings. "Plenty of people like the idea of having unproductive meetings," wrote Rick Barton of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "That way they can kill part of the work day and leave the meeting without any real work to do as a follow up."

Overall, there were too many interesting ideas shared to fit into a B&G Report item. So, for anyone interested, watch out for the next issue of Governing magazine, where we've used your comments to provide background for our bi-monthly management column.

In the "many a slip between cup and lip" category: When we heard that New Jersey officials intended to press school districts and local governments to figure out ways to save money by sharing services, we applauded. Now, however, a study by the Rutgers Institute on Education and Law, conducted for the New Jersey School Boards Association, points out that there are plenty of roadblocks.

"The most-often-cited barrier to developing interdistrict and interlocal shared service arrangements is the fierce sense of home rule that prevails in some school districts and municipalities," the report states. "A strong sense of home rule can thwart openness to shared services in school districts." Local politics also plays a role here because boards of education sometimes believe that contracting for services outside of their district "leads to money flowing out of the community rather than remaining within local borders to benefit local businesses and taxpayers."

Succession planning may be one area in which there's some truth that the private sector is way ahead of the public sector. And that's unfortunate. Absent this kind of effort, cities, counties and states frequently find themselves with very important positions open -- and no one even close to ready to fill them.

What's more, succession planning can be a terrific boost to employee enthusiasm. It's a great incentive for productivity when people know they're being groomed for potentially bigger and better things. There's been remarkably little written about succession planning in the public sector, but consulting firm Watson Wyatt has just come out with a study that provides a terrific starting point for entities interested in moving forward here.

What happens when the boss is out? That was the question posed by Plansponsor, which describes itself as the nation's largest online resource for retirement and pension issues. Admittedly, the informal poll mostly solicited reaction from the private sector, but it's our guess things aren't so much different among cities and states. And the results were pretty surprising. So we thought we'd pass them along.

More than 38 percent of respondents told Plansponsor there was no difference in the amount of work they did with or without the boss. But a startling 29 percent indicated they got more work done when the boss was out, and only 3 percent said they got less done. (The rest chose the "other" category.) We really can't vouch for the scientific validity of the exercise. But at minimum it should lead managers to ask themselves this question: Is there anything I'm doing that hinders the ability of the people working for me to get their work done? (Like, maybe, too many meetings?)

When we quoted Thomas Jefferson last month as saying that "information is the currency of democracy," we didn't anticipate any rebuttals. But we're grateful to Robert Carroll, the chief staffing services representative with the New York State Department of Civil Service, for surprising us.

Carroll wasn't actually arguing with Jefferson -- just modifying the quote a bit. Wrote Carroll, "I might agree with Jefferson's comment that 'information is the currency of democracy' if he had used a few adjectives like 'accurate,' 'complete' and 'unbiased.' Otherwise the currency is, like our current greenback, feel-good, fiat currency that makes people feel rich as they become poorer by the day. Much of the information we get today is counterfeit currency that makes people feel informed while they continue to wallow in their ignorance."

You don't see the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (father of the current Windy City mayor) quoted about information very often. But here's one of his comments that seems appropriate in context of questions about information as "feel-good" currency. It's sometimes used as an example of the mayor's regular wrangles with the English language. But we think that if you just take it at face value, it can take on a whole new meaning: "We shall reach greater and greater platitudes of achievement."

It's always a little alarming when we come across performance measures that are fundamentally based on the cost of providing a service. The amount of money a city or state spends on a particular function is a matter of policy and politics. The performance measures should also focus on how effectively each of the dollars is being spent.

With that in mind, we were happy to see the news that lawmakers in New York State, led by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, intend to pass a law that requires health insurers to use quality of-care-measures when they rank physicians. As Cuomo said, according to a story in the Albany Times Union, "It is imperative that New Yorkers aren't steered to certain 'preferred' physicians based solely on cost but instead have access to clear and meaningful measurements of quality of care to help them make well-informed decisions."

Having spent much of our professional lives ranking, rating and otherwise evaluating cities, counties and states, it feels a little disingenuous for us to even comment on U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of the nation's colleges and universities. But seeing our daughter and her friends -- all high school seniors -- flipping through the U.S. News lists on a regular basis, we've got a few things on our minds that pertain to this exercise, and performance measurement in general.

We won't comment on the methodology -- frankly, our view is that there are endless approaches to such an exercise, and one is probably as good as the next. And we certainly believe in the idea that consumers potentially benefit from being able to compare one school to the next on the basis of independent research.

Our problem is this: Through no fault of U.S. News, these lists create a false impression that one school is "better" than the next on an absolute basis, and that competitive students should strive for the "best" school possible. As far as we can see, this particular decision is a lot more complicated than that. The "best" schools for any individual -- based on the programs in which they excel, size, location and a whole host of other factors -- make up an entirely different list than the one-size-fits-all ranking in the magazine.

All of which leads to a question: Should people avoid publishing evaluations that might mislead some readers? We don't think so. But we do think that in this instance, users who may not be able to put the results in perspective must be informed by educated guidance counselors and teachers to use the U.S. News list for what it is. Interesting. Useful. Well-researched. But not a guide to the best college for any one student.

Watch it. During all the years that the price of houses seemed to trend ever higher, taxpayers frequently suffered sticker shock when their property was reassessed and their property taxes rose accordingly. Now the shoe is on the other foot. With the subprime mortgage mess, a dramatic number of taxpayers are going to be pressing for downward reassessments. Actual foreclosures will have the same effect. That'll mean less property tax money for municipalities, and a push for service cuts.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Council for the New American City have already sounded the alarm. "Not that long ago economists said housing was the backbone of our economy," said Trenton, New Jersey, Mayor Douglas Palmer, who is president of the Conference. "Today the foreclosure crisis has the potential to break the back of our economy, as well as the backs of millions of American families, if we don't do something soon."

While we have no good ideas about the housing problem, one thought does come to mind. This is a very good time for smart civic leaders to start thinking hard about where they're going to make cuts if they're needed. In our experience, some of the most counter-productive budget cuts come when the crisis has actually hit and there's no time to give thoughtful analysis to the ways to make the most of every revenue dollar.

The National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors (NAUMD) has named the Washington State Patrol the Best Dressed State Law Enforcement Agency for 2007. If you think we're mentioning this just as a throw-away, you're wrong.

We have no real evidence to prove this, but we've always felt that when government employees take pride in the way they're required to look in their jobs, it's likely they'll be more inclined to live up to that image in their work. Moreover, government representatives who interact with the public, and covet respect from that public, are well served by genuinely dressing like people who deserve it. We're not just talking about uniformed personnel here, but it's probably most true of them. "When a citizen in need meets a trooper whose bow tie is straight and whose shoes are shined, they know right away that they're being assisted by a professional," said Washington State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste in a press release. "We believe a positive first impression helps create a positive overall contact."

Now there's a way to keep expenses down. Our favorite blog entry of late came from the blog associated with the University of Michigan's daily newspaper. Here it is: "The [Ann Arbor, Michigan] Council approved a resolution to purchase two Zamboni Ice Resurfacers yesterday. Together, the ice machines cost $144,300. Ann Arbor City Mayor John Hieftje asked the Council: 'When we get these Zambonis, any chance Councilmembers could drive them?'"

Our journalist of the month award goes to Kibret Markos of The Record in Hackensack, New Jersey, for a recent piece that goes smack into our files under "unintended consequences." Turns out that Governor Jon Corzine has been arguing for some time that the day after Thanksgiving wasn't a legal holiday for state employees, but that they'd gotten it off in the past as a kind of a gift. And this past Thanksgiving, he made good on his promise, requiring state workers to show up that day or take a personal day off. We won't comment on whether this was good or bad fiscal policy, considering the thousands of workers who were ticked off. But when it came to the courts, while most employees are hired by the state, a number of county employees are in the building as well -- many to provide the necessary security. Result: They were paid time-and-a-half -- some employees were even paid double that -- to work that day, money the counties hadn't budgeted. For example, according to the piece, "Bill Maer, a spokesman for the Passaic County Sheriff's Department, said the department expects to spend close to $80,000 to deploy officers and civilian support staff to keep the Paterson courthouse open."

If the state actually saved tangible dollars with the change, shouldn't it send a little of it over to the counties? That's what we're thinking. If we're missing something, let us know.

Here's a riddle: If you call a horse's tail a leg, then how many legs does a horse have? The answer is four. That's because it doesn't matter what you call a tail, it's still a tail. This old joke came to mind when we read about Illinois' plans to retain the 40 hours of annual training it provides prison employees -- despite extreme budgetary pressures. It is accomplishing this by counting "routine chores such as staff meetings and roll-call updates" as training. We don't think anyone would disagree that Illinois' prisons are currently understaffed, and that this is one way to get more person-hours. But it feels to us like cutting back on training leads to a real possibility that not only will the prisons stay understaffed, the staff they have will be less qualified.

If ever there was an area ripe for state and local collaboration, technology is it. Though cross-jurisdictional collaborations are often messy affairs, there are dozens of examples of states that have worked well with their municipalities to improve services and save money by simply playing together nicely. We recommend a new NASCIO report on the topic called "Connecting State and Local Government: Collaboration through Trust and Leadership."

When collecting "secrets" for good management a little while back, one of our favorites was suggested by Dall Forsythe, a professor at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. His tip: "The best managers I know always keep close track of a limited number of key indicators of performance -- what some call their 'walking around numbers.' Sometimes they have them on a card or folded sheet of paper in their pockets, sometimes in their heads."

We're kind of biased and we admit it. For years, we've been involved with the Governmental Accounting Standards' Boards efforts with performance measurement (it calls them SEA, for Service Efforts and Accomplishments). So we've avoided writing a great deal in The B&G Report about GASB's work here, since we know it's somewhat controversial and we just can't bill ourselves as totally independent observers.

That said, we just came across a paper by GASB that addresses the question of whether municipal bond analysts want this kind of information. This is a really crucial question. Without comment, we're just reprinting GASB's argument -- you can draw whatever conclusions you'd like:

"Do Municipal Analysts Use SEA Information? Although many are quick to answer no, the evidence points to yes. SEA performance information is an official part of municipal credit analysis for many revenue-backed credits. For example, published ratings criteria for higher education credits cite the following as necessary information: full-time equivalent enrollment; freshman acceptance and matriculation rates; average SAT scores; percentage undergraduate; freshman retention rate; four- and five-year graduation rates; full-time equivalent faculty; percentage of faculty tenured; full- versus part-time faculty; and so on.

"The National Federation of Municipal Analysts' recommended disclosures for water and sewer transactions include: trends in staffing; capacity, peak and average flows, and amounts treated for drinking water and wastewater facilities; and miles of water mains and storm and sanitary sewers. Recommended disclosures for airport debt include: numbers of employees; breakdown of level of passenger and cargo service by type, including domestic and international; number of gates available and in use by type; total enplanements; average daily departures; cargo activity in tons; and many others. Similar lists could be presented for toll roads and bridges, health care facilities, and public power.

"So why do many municipal analysts insist they do not use SEA performance information? One might guess they are unfamiliar with the term 'SEA.' Therefore, the wording of the question in the interviews was crafted to clearly explain what SEA performance information is. Many interviewees persisted in saying no. Follow-up questions, however, asked them whether they used the types of information described above, and not surprisingly they acknowledged that they did. When it was explained to them that those statistics are kinds of SEA performance information, one could practically see comprehension dawning on their faces."

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Research Assistant: Heather Kleba