"Low-Hanging Fruit" and Other Annoying Phrases

Plus: Overly expensive -- and overly designed -- logos, the Philadelphia Productivity Bank, and more
July 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

-- Exclusive --

The B&G Interview: Questions for Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and the current executive director of the Alliance for Excellent Education

We clearly struck a nerve last month when we asked you to send us words and phrases in public sector jargon that set your nerves on edge. The e-mails started to come in two minutes after the B&G Report was delivered, and kept coming (though at a slow trickle, now).

The phrase that got the most votes, in varying forms, was "low-hanging fruit." As Michele Ackles, deputy to the Delaware CIO, wrote, "This phrase is just so wrong in so many ways that it literally makes shivers run up my spine. It's all I can do not to make inappropriate facial gestures during any meeting where these words are uttered."

Other big vote-getters included: "thinking outside the box," "paradigm," and "running government like a business." Finally, a number of you reported frustration with the way the word "strategic" has become married to virtually every government action, to the point where it's uncertain that it has any meaning.

Many of you have probably seen the logo that was designed for the 2012 Olympics in London. For those who haven't, the thing looks unsettlingly like a swastika. It cost $800,000 to produce and -- after the hoopla that attended its unveiling -- is being redesigned. Here's our two cents: While we like pretty logos as much as the next guys, we think this business of spending large sums on them is a waste of cash for governments -- and for private-sector firms as well. Our advice: Next time someone tries to sell you on a grand new logo for a new program, department or anything else, ask them to show that there's any demonstrably tangible return on that investment.

The Philadelphia Productivity Bank has long been considered a great success. Since its inception in the early 1990s, it has provided loans to city agencies for initiatives that cost money in the short run but save money long-term -- like a new computer system in the revenue department that helped cut delinquent taxes dramatically. Other governments have seen its value and emulated it.

That's the end of the good news story here. Philadelphia recently delivered its long-range financial plan to the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA). It included a number of actions designed to solve a budget shortfall. One of the proposals -- bet you saw this coming -- was to eliminate the Productivity Bank, which would save Philadelphia $30 million over the next five years.

Rob Dubow, former city budget director and now executive director of PICA, thinks this is a mistake. "It's important for the city to have this vehicle for funding projects that would make it operate more efficiently and effectively."

It borders on the ironic. In an effort to engage in long-term planning, the city is proposing to cut a model of long-term thinking for short-term savings.

We knew it. Back in our college days, one of us worked at the music library at Northwestern University. We won't mention which one, but it was the male half of our partnership. Anyhow, this person also had a terrible habit of keeping library books way overdue. But when the libraries computerized, he discovered that he could adjust the dates online and pay a nickel or a dime instead of two or three dollars. Turns out, according to an auditor's report, Seattle employees are up to the same tricks.

Folks who work for the municipal courts take just a few keystrokes to change the amount due from someone in the system. And a large number of employees can adjust fines because of access they have to the databases. Our little trip to the wild side of unpaid library fines never went further. But the Seattle experience makes us wonder. Are there other databases out there -- property taxes in towns and small cities, for example -- that might be susceptible to the same kind of abuse?

Just a few days ago, we came across an Alabama newspaper article lamenting the results of a recent Reason Foundation study that "analyzed data collected on state-maintained roads throughout the country and ranked Alabama 43rd, down from 11th place in 2000."

As it happens, we had also noted an alarming reported drop in the condition of Alabama's roads in highway statistics a while back and decided they didn't stand up to common sense.

Here's what doesn't make sense to us. First of all, based on what we know about Alabama's roads, it stuns us that the state was number 11 back in 2000. Second, could any state really drop from 11 to 43 in such a short time? Doesn't seem likely. We asked some sources in Alabama, and they think the problem might just be in sampling errors. Of course, there's no way to know which sample is more representative: the old happy one or the new sad one.

This, by the way, is just the edge of a national pothole. Highway-condition assessments, for the most part, are derived by the states themselves, and efforts at comparability are fraught with peril.

Let's establish from the outset that we have only a layman's understanding of some financial techniques that are common in the public sector. Leading the list of things we don't really understand fully are derivatives and interest-rate swaps. But here are a few things we do understand: For a while now, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board has been talking about the need for more transparency in their use. That makes sense to us, since it's our guess that an awful lot of legislators don't understand these tools any better than we do.

We also know, thanks to a report on Bloomberg.com, that Jefferson County, Alabama, may well have overpaid banks by as much as $100 million for "arranging $5.7 billion of derivative contracts, designed to lower borrowing costs on sewer debt, the county's financial adviser estimated."

James White, the president of the firm that is the county's financial adviser, told Bloomberg.com that "this is an opaque market." These transactions "are not found in any publicly available database."

While White's conclusions are the subject of debate, somebody ought to be minding this particular store -- and not just in Alabama.

Oregon, through its Progress Board, was one of the first states to take big steps forward on benchmarking, performance measurement and strong strategic planning. You'd have thought that Oregon would have had its greatest impact -- outside of the state itself -- inspiring other states as well as cities or counties to learn from its efforts and then innovate.

But Jeff Tryens, former executive director of the Oregon Progress Board, told us that hasn't really been the case. The biggest impact to date, he suggests, may be in Australia, where several governments have studied Oregon's efforts over a number of years. In the state of South Australia, particularly, the student has now become the teacher. Tryens, who has worked for the last couple of years assisting the South Australia government, says that he now considers it a model for how strategic planning can be successfully used at the highest level of government.

One deficit: South Australia still has a lot to learn about access to public information. There's little effort to get data related to government services out to the public -- and little demand for it from the citizenry.

Thanks to property tax reform in Florida, most of the state's localities are searching far and wide for ways to cut back. They have our sympathies. As in all states, Florida's communities face a variety of long-term pressures that make it especially tricky to keep budgets under control.

Consider water: According to the Tampa Tribune, the city lost about four billion gallons of water last year through leaky pipes. That's about $3 million worth. The paper, basing some of its conclusions on a recent internal audit of the city's water system, also points to overtime in the water department as a $500,000-a-year problem.

The overtime issue is troublesome when you look at where the workers are putting in all those hours. Between 2004 and 2007, the hours workers spent on system repair jumped from 39 percent to 59 percent of the total workload. That, by itself, might seem like good news, right? Looks like the city is trying to patch all those leaks. But during the same period, reported the Tribune, "preventive maintenance fell from 22 percent to 16 percent."

Apparently, the city's water department has taken note that it must start putting more into preventive maintenance, according to a water department spokesman quoted by the Tribune. And that's a good start. Of course, this is the kind of thing in which it costs more money short-term to save money long-term. We'll check back with Tampa in a year or so and see how it's done. We'd love to be able to report that Tampa had become an example of the way to do things right.

While we were poking around Florida to learn a little more about its property-tax problems, we came across a Web site that we wanted to pass along. It was created by the Florida Legislative Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. We've talked with a lot of people in government over the years about their deep yearning for more information about intergovernmental policies and practices, and this looked like an unusually solid legislative effort in that direction.

When we were kids -- and far more recently than that -- the only thing we knew about Red Hook, Brooklyn, was that you didn't want to go there without a bodyguard. Today, the largest police precinct in this section of New York City is one of the safest.

Obviously, a great deal has changed in the city as a whole, but one particularly innovative effort has had a great deal to do with this dramatic improvement. In June 2000, the Red Hook Community Justice Center, the nation's first multi-jurisdictional community court, was launched. This court combines criminal, family and civil courts under the purview of one judge. It tends to sentence low-level offenders to community restitution and social services rather than jail. A few dozen other community courts have followed this model throughout the United States.

For a little history, listen to Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, the organization that is behind the Red Hook center and a number of other worthwhile initiatives related to courts and criminal justice:

"In the 1980s, even though there were many [quality-of-life] laws on the books, there was an implicit, and in some cases an explicit, push not to enforce them. Then in the early 1990s, the executive branch made this decision that they were really going to crack down on these crimes. In the '90s, the number of misdemeanor crimes went up by 95 percent. The prosecutors were committed to prosecuting them. And they'd land at the desk of the judges. And the number of judges didn't go up. You had this tidal wave of new cases coming in. In the majority of cases, the judges would either give out a week in jail, which is meaningless, and very expensive to boot. Or more frequently than short-term jail, it would be a free pass out of the courthouse with no sanction. You'd plead guilty to criminal conduct, and nothing would happen."

It turns out that the knowledge that there will be some consequences when you're arrested for breaking the law makes it far more likely that you won't break the law again. The community, which is still overwhelming poor, is quite happy. Before the center opened, only about 12 percent of the population had anything good to say about local courts; now 78 percent feel favorably about this one.

As Gilbert and Sullivan wrote, "let the punishment fit the crime." The key, of course, is allowing judges to really make this happen.

Our favorite piece of government management esoterica appeared in the Albany Times Union a few weeks back. The short article takes note of the fact that in the New York State Assembly, no bill is numbered lower than A00026. There's no A00025 or A00016 and so on. In the Senate, apparently, the lowest bill numbers are reserved for particularly important legislation. Why these phantom bill numbers in the House? The reason, reported the Times Union, is "treated like a state secret. Repeated queries to the Assembly press office were answered essentially with this explanation: The bills don't have legislation because, well, there is no legislation attached to the bills."

We're sick of pundits who believe that most of government's problems can be blamed on "waste, fraud and abuse." But that's only because it's such an overstatement. No question, there is some waste and fraud in government, and cost-effective ways to cut down on it are steps in the right direction.

One concept that seems to be gaining steam is the fraud/abuse hotline. Milwaukee County, for example, strives "to make government more effective, open and accessible to all citizens." It has set up both phone and e-mail lines to receive "any citizen and employee concerns regarding fraud, waste, inefficiencies and abuses within County government operations." All these communications, naturally, are anonymous -- which is part of the lure of this kind of operation.

Oklahoma City has recently followed suit with a similar effort and learned a lot along the way. Seetal Varughese, the city's audit manager, was kind enough to put together some tips for B&G Report readers who might be interested. Some of the advice:

* Establish credibility by ensuring no caller ID, *69 or other tracking mechanisms are present on hotline reporting avenues.

· Have an effective marketing campaign (i.e. brochures, worksite posters, intranet site, etc.) to make sure the message reaches all employees (and vendors, etc., if applicable).

· Re-market the hotline periodically to remind employees and provide materials to new employees at orientation.

· Have a solid database (ideal) or spreadsheet repository to capture and manage all case information and to generate statistical reports on the data.

· Try to determine the value to the organization for each allegation resolved (i.e., fraud exposed, internal control weakness identified and corrected, etc.).

· Encourage the caller to call again at a future date.

· Ensure your case-numbering system accounts for calls with multiple allegations. One call does not always equal one allegation.

· Decide when follow-up should end; what constitutes closure for an allegation. Is it management's response to consider implementing a new policy/procedure or is it when the new policy/procedure is actually implemented?.

· Be cautious to avoid pronouns (he, she, etc.) in verbal and written word that would potentially expose the identity of complainants.

So there we were, on the road again, traveling with our 17-year-old daughter to a soccer tournament near Baltimore. We won't share the name of the hotel, but we can tell you that it was recommended to our daughter's team by the tournament itself. We don't ask much from these kinds of motels and hotels, except that they be clean and safe. To make a long story short, we were afraid to leave our room at night because the gentlemen who were hanging around didn't seem like they were up to anything good. The next day, we got to the tournament about a half-hour late because the police kept us in the parking lot while they finished up with a drug bust there.

Why do we bring this all up? It seems to us that every major function in a town, city or state should consider itself an ambassador to visitors. Economic development efforts should only begin by trying to attract visitors. They should follow through by making sure that guests want to come back again. Do economic development officers out there try to work with large conventions, tournaments and the like to make sure they're doing that? If so, we'd love to hear from you so we can spread the word.

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but maybe there is such a thing as free food for the brain. Some months ago, we became aware that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was making its courses available online for anyone who was interested. No charge. No fee. Just lots of wonderful, educational material. By the end of this year, the school anticipates having its entire curriculum online.

MIT is a leader in a movement toward so-called open courseware that evolves from the idea that if knowledge is in the public domain everyone can benefit. We set about seeing if there were any courses that would be exciting to readers of the B&G Report at MIT or elsewhere. We turned to the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, which was kind enough to provide us with a number of links that looked particularly interesting. Here is a small selection:

Theories of Public Policy. From Tufts University OpenCourseWare. Full-text lecture notes from classes. Examines competing theories, models and analytical frameworks for understanding policy making. Case-study application is used to underscore lessons learned. Knowledge of the basic tools of lawmaking is sharpened.

New Century Cities: Real Estate, Digital Technology, and Design. From MIT OpenCourseWare. Explores extraordinary projects that challenge conventional approaches to real estate development, urban design and advanced digital technology. Full set of lecture notes as well as assignments and responses by students.

Workshop on Deliberative Democracy and Dispute Resolution. From MIT OpenCourseWare. Extensive lecture notes (audio) and participant reflections from a two-day conference that brings together dispute-resolution professionals and political theorists in the field of deliberative democracy.

Hurricanes, Climate, and Katrina. From the Science Education Resource Center. Provides links to many Science Magazine articles related to hurricanes, coastal disasters and disaster policy. The articles are divided into four sections: the Gulf Coast hurricanes and their aftermath; climate change, hurricanes and extreme weather; coastal disaster planning; and Louisiana's wetlands and other floodplain issues. Useful for understanding the large-scale and smaller-scale scientific, social and political background and issues surrounding this natural disaster.

Disaster, Vulnerability and Resilience. From MIT OpenCourseWare. Complete set of lecture notes and slides, plus list of readings.

From the Science Education Resource Center. This EPA site provides links to resources concerning Superfund laws, regulations, policies, and guidelines for hazardous waste sites and soil and groundwater remediation.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba