Looking for Civics Lessons

Plus: Planning for the end of the stimulus, the D.A.R.E. problem, and more
February 18, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Can any of you point us to any excellent civics education efforts in your part of the country (or any other part, for that matter)? We're repeatedly appalled by the state of knowledge of young people (and their parents, sadly) about the simplest facets of government. Who is responsible for picking up the trash -- the city, county or the state? What does a city manager do? Does the state government have anything to do with education? These are the kinds of things people don't know. And it's nearly impossible to appreciate a well-managed government if you don't know the basics.

We're sure there are some schools that are doing a terrific job with this kind of thing. E-mail us and let us know if you know of any.

Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell is proposing some ways to bring in additional revenues -- right now -- that wouldn't be used until after the federal stimulus dollars run out in 2011. A lot of people are worried about the future of states and cities after the stimulus well dries up. Governor Rendell appears to be trying to do something about the inevitable problem.

The relationship between research studies and the implementation of policies is often perplexing -- and sometimes nonexistent. For a wonderful case study, we recommend a new paper from the Center for Court Innovation. It looks at the complex history of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or D.A.R.E., which failed to show significant effect on drug use over countless evaluations, yet seemed remarkably resistant to attempts to cut it back.

The report presents a case that is neither simple nor one-sided. It looks at some good reasons that the D.A.R.E program has lived on in many school districts, including side benefits such as improved relations between schools and police, and it devotes attention to ways in which past evaluations led to changes within the program curriculum. On the other hand, it also paints a vivid picture of the difficulties of large-scale research projects and the way the evaluation and practitioner communities can find themselves locked in hostile combat.

Did you know that more than eight out of 10 elementary and middle schools in New York City got an "A" in an evaluation that is used to make decisions about rewards and penalties for the schools and their administrators?

Do you believe that number? Probably not. Turns out that neither do a lot of others, according to a recent article in the New York Daily News . Education historian Diane Ravitch was quoted in the News as saying, "These grades were phony."

Officials are now changing the test so grades are given on a curve; only 25 percent of schools will be eligible for A's in the next iteration.

That may be a step in the right direction, but we have questions. Let's assume that the only way so many schools could have been doing so well was through a flawed evaluation. If that was the case, then might not putting the grades on a curve just hide the flaws? Maybe the schools should be measured in a different way altogether.

And while we're discussing the Big Apple, here's an astonishing statistic, also from the New York Daily News: Some 85 percent of calls made on alarm boxes placed on city streets are false alarms. This statistic was brought out in connection with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to get rid of the boxes in light of the fact that so many people now have cell phones, rendering the boxes duplicative.

Our question about public-sector technology seems to have struck responsive chords among many of you. We received a number of replies (and still invite you to e-mail us), which hit upon many different points.

"In the state of Michigan," wrote one manager there, "we are forced to use Internet Explorer 6 and MS Office 2002. It's getting to the point where we are unable to view some web pages."

A county official in New York State told us that "I laughed when I discovered that there was neither scanning capabilities nor the ability to print in color when I arrived on the scene 400 days ago."

Yet another reader argued that the problem is that everyone has too high expectations for technology. And still others maintained that the technology they were using was fully up to speed. It may be worth noting that two of the more positive folks came from the state of Washington. We'll give you a fuller briefing in a couple of weeks.

How to get the public interested in performance measurement? There aren't any easy answers, despite the fact that we've been suggesting that governments do just that for years. One solution, perhaps, is to engage the public in the process. That's very much the focus of the Center on Government Performance's Government Trailblazer Program, which "encourages local and county governments to engage the public in their performance measurement and reporting processes." This includes "getting feedback from the public about the content and style of their performance reports; heeding some or all of the public's suggestions when revising performance measures and reports and reviewing management practices and priorities; [and] disseminating performance reports to the public on an ongoing basis. Online applications for the program -- which gives public recognition for good work in this field -- are due on March 15.

We've always been OK with enduring long waiting times in hospital emergency rooms. The people who get immediate attention are generally in pretty bad shape -- heart attacks, gunshot wounds, breathing problems and so on. So when we waited for quite a while to get attention to a potentially broken arm belonging to our then-six-year-old daughter, we didn't squawk.

That said, waiting for attention can be frustrating -- even frightening -- for many. That's why Akron General Health System in Ohio "recently began advertising up-to-the-minute wait times for its emergency rooms on billboards throughout town," according to the Akron Beacon Journal . It's a nice use of performance measures, and we'd suspect that it may also force other local hospitals to pay more attention to emergency room wait times. One potential snag: People with serious ailments who desperately want immediate attention may drive out of their way to find quicker service -- when in fact, those are the patients who will be seen very quickly almost anywhere. Thanks to Kaiser Health News for leading us to this item.

Managers in the federal government report that their use of performance information hasn't changed significantly in the last decade, despite ever-growing stacks of measures, according to the Government Accountability Office. No surprise there. But we thought there were some interesting lessons to be learned at the state and local levels (as well as the federal) in one of the major exceptions: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, where managers reported that their use of performance information in management decisions increased by 21 percent from 2000 to 2007. Testimony delivered last September details a number of likely reasons behind the improvement, including a dramatic increase in leadership commitment, a lot of training and an increased perception among managers that they were being held accountable for results.

At a time when many state, county and local officials are faced with painful choices, thanks to a number of economic events far out of their control, we continue to think of one of our favorite quotes from that famous quote-maker, Confucius. Said he, "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."

Feel any better?