Looking for E-mail Wisdom

Plus: Budget tricks, taco cooperation, and more
January 21, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

E-mail wisdom. We've noticed that there are a variety of topics about which public sector managers can be most easily engaged. Finances probably top the list. Hiring good people is certainly up there. And then there's e-mail. Everyone seems to have a story about their frustrations with this electronic miracle. For ourselves, we've now made a rule: "When you find yourself puzzling, at length, about the right way to word an e-mail, you're probably better off using the telephone."

Do any of you have any advice to add? In the past, we've inquired about e-mail gripes. Now, we're looking for solutions -- e-mail them to us.

In the previous edition of the B&G Report, we bemoaned allegedly balanced budgets that really aren't. Just last week we came across one of the best examples we've ever seen. California's budget includes about $8 billion in revenues from federal aid and waivers. That seemed like a high number when it was first announced. And now we see that California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office believes that the chances of the state bringing in that much money are "almost non-existent." Can't get much less likely than that.

Taco Tuesdays? The state of Minnesota serves tacos at every prison in the state on Tuesdays. We like tacos ourselves, and -- assuming they're good tacos -- we'd guess that prisoners probably aren't unhappy with this menu choice. But the fact is, serving tacos saves Minnesota about ten cents per meal every week.

Now the neighboring state of Wisconsin is going to do the same thing -- for an annual savings of $2 million, according to a piece in the Wisconsin State Journal. This is part of a new partnership between Wisconsin and Minnesota to find ways to save money by instituting more efficient practices. Wisconsin is aiming to come up with $11 million in efficiencies over the next three years.

It's not a huge amount of money, to be sure. But we think the important thing about this deal is the fact that two states are working together in this way. On the taco front, Minnesota and Wisconsin intend to start making joint purchases of the Tuesday meals, to save even more dollars.

On the other hand, we were dismayed to learn in the same Wisconsin State Journal piece (sent to us by colleague Will Wilson) that Minnesota officials recently canceled a 43-year-old agreement with Wisconsin that allowed workers who live in one of the states but work in the other to file a single income tax return.

According to the Journal, "Minnesota officials canceled the agreement in September after Wisconsin officials balked at speeding up tax payments to Minnesota to help solve that state's budget deficit. That will affect 33,500 taxpayers in Wisconsin and 13,000 in Minnesota on their 2010 taxes filed in the spring of 2011. Todd Berry, president of Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said people's taxes may not rise but their paperwork and headaches will."

Web site recommendation: Take a look at Open Culture for its "Best of 2009" links. Though this site doesn't focus on government issues, you'll find a great many fascinating lectures and Internet links that help people understand the world at large -- including topics that are of immediate use to public sector managers.

We've come across a nice little list of ideas that we think can help people accomplish more in cities, counties and states. Included is the idea that managers should break their goals "into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable and time-based." The list also encourages readers to make sure others are aware of the goals and to keep in mind the real-world benefits that will accrue if they're accomplished. Finally, it advises that people treat failures as temporary setbacks, "rather than a reason to give up altogether."

But here's the cool part. This list wasn't intended for government managers. It was assembled by Richard Wiseman, Ph.D, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. The purpose? To help people keep New Year's resolutions.

How quickly should states publish their comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFRs) after the end of the fiscal year? For the men and women who really want to know what's going on in a state, sooner is better. According to the National Association of State Comptrollers, there was quite a range for the 2008 reports. Five states took more than 300 days: Illinois (376), South Dakota (348), Arizona (331), Hawaii (327) and New Jersey (305). Ten states took under 170 days, with the quickest turnarounds in Michigan (92), New York (116) and South Carolina (135). It's interesting to note that Michigan, despite its bollixed-up economy, still got the CAFR out more quickly than any other state.

Not only are early retirements a dubious way of saving cash for a state, we wonder if anyone has considered the social policy implications of this fiscal tool. "Typically, in America, we've divided our adult life up into two sections," says Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones , in a recent "Ted Talk" video.

Buettner makes a persuasive case that retirement can be hazardous to your health. As he goes on, "There is our work life, where we're productive. And then one day, boom, we retire. And typically that has meant retiring to the easy chair or going down to Arizona to play golf. In the Okinawan language there is not even a word for retirement. Instead there is one word that imbues your entire life and that word is 'ikigai.' And, roughly translated, it means 'the reason for which you wake up in the morning.' "

We found Buettner's commentary fascinating, and we recommend watching it. And you can find more info on "blue zones" in this Governing Idea Center item.

Quote for a new age. Tim Maniccia, director of operations for Albany County, New York, passed along this comment from his county executive, Michael Breslin: "Gone are the days of doing more with less or even the same with less. We are now going to do less with less." A little bleak? Sure. But we think it's on target, at least for the foreseeable future.

GIS mapping has long seemed to be one of the best uses of technology to help understand the work of cities, counties and states. The Miller-McCune online magazine just ran a provocative piece about GIS systems, focusing on their use to identify areas in which poor and minority communities are being underserved by municipal services. The piece goes on from there to make some points we thought might be useful to B&G readers:

"Today, an increasing number of academics, attorneys, nonprofits and community groups are using maps to identify social problems, devise solutions and leverage change. GIS is being deployed to combat discrimination and inequities in education, health care access, housing, employment opportunities, transportation and law enforcement. 'You're not up to date in social justice advocacy if you don't know how to use GIS maps,' says Anita Earls, director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, N.C.

"Still, GIS is in its relative infancy as a popular science, and public awareness of its attributes and capacity is relatively low. Although most people have been exposed on the Internet to such GIS-based products as Google Maps, few can identify the technology behind them...."

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan