Nerve-wracking Government Jargon

Plus: Unacceptably low graduation rates, the "paperful" office, and more
June 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

-- Exclusive --

The B&G Interview: Questions for Carlos Alvarez and George Burgess, the mayor and county manager of Miami-Dade County

What words set your nerves on edge? The Boston Business Journal recently did an informal survey asking private-sector readers what piece of business jargon irritated them the most.

The two terms that came up most frequently were: "empower" and "win-win." We invite readers of the B&G Report to send us their candidates in the public sector. Just to get the ball rolling (and with no effort to influence your contributions), we'd nominate "best practices" as the jargon that makes us want to scream. Reach us by clicking here.

"Unacceptably low graduation rates, particularly among poor and minority children, have been obscured far too long by inaccurate data, misleading calculations and reporting, and flawed accountability systems at the state and federal levels," reports the Alliance for Excellent Education. With all the big talk about improving education in the United States, it seems like a crying shame to us that we can't seem to get the basic data in hand.

The Alliance's captivating Web site illuminates the problem by showing alarming uncertainty about this seemingly simple question: What percentage of students graduate from secondary school with a regular diploma in the standard number of years? Take New York State. According to state-reported information for No Child Left Behind, it's 76 percent. The U.S. Department of Education says 61 percent. The Manhattan Institute? 58 percent. You get the idea.

The Alliance suggests three steps that the states should take if they're really serious about tackling the problem. First, they need "common, accurate graduation rate calculations." Second, they should have a "high-quality longitudinal data system that tracks individual student data from the time a student enters the educational system until he or she leaves it." Finally, "high schools should be held responsible for improving test scores and graduation rates."

The Alliance's president is Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia. As he told us, "If I'd gone to the fortune teller three years ago, and she said, 'Bob, you're going to be passionate about longitudinal data systems,' I'd have said, 'I want my money back.' " Stay tuned for an exclusive B&G Interview with Wise -- about this and other topics -- next month.

Not so long ago, it seemed to us that the Internet was going to make life infinitely more efficient by eliminating those tall stacks of paper that tended to be piled up in most managers' offices. Why get a hard copy of an auditor's report, a budget or any other important document when it was easily readable online?

Turns out, though, that most people we speak to -- in and out of government -- print out all the most important stuff they find online, to be read in paper versions later on. We certainly do this, and there's more paper in our office than ever before (a fact for Ripley's Believe it or Not). When we mentioned this phenomenon to a financial journalist friend, she recalled a story she had reported for Forbes a couple of decades ago. She was asking a giant paper manufacturer about the coming "paperless society." His response was to laugh. "Paperless office? No. We're just putting a printing press in everyone's office."

Curious about how the states are doing? Then be sure to check out the National Association of State Budget Officers' Fiscal Survey of States, which came out last week. It helps to put a lot of headlines about the states into perspective. This is particularly important right now, since articles that generalize about all the states are inevitably wrong about some of them.

As Scott Pattison, NASBO's executive director, told us last week, "This fiscal survey is showing the beginning of more variation in state finances. From about 2002 to 2004, almost every state was part of a significant downturn. Since then, states have recovered nicely. Now we're seeing more of a mixed bag among the states, with some still doing very, very well and a handful showing signs of weakness." And what are the signs for the future? In fiscal year 2008, Pattison says, "I expect to see some states maintaining a strong fiscal condition and others beginning to really hurt." The current Fiscal Survey will help you to tell who's who.

Getting guns off the streets is a good thing for cities. Some, including Orlando and Charleston, S.C., have developed programs in which people who give tips that lead to the confiscation of illegal guns are rewarded. Seems like a good idea.

But we were particularly impressed when Miami-Dade's County Mayor Carlos Alvarez told us about a management device his county had integrated into this idea. Miami-Dade leaders figured out that a lot of their best tipsters could be people who have been recently incarcerated, need the cash, want to stay away from crime and know who has guns. "So we're promoting the program to people who are coming out of jail," he told us. "We conducted focus groups in jails. Within two days of starting the program, we had received 25 tips and three arrests of convicted felons in possession of guns." For more with County Mayor Alvarez, see this month's B&G Interview.

Diversity in a government workforce is a desirable goal. Toward that end, a number of human-resources offices focus on hiring men and women who are reflective of the overall population of their city, county or state. But it seems to us like this is only half the equation. Once you've hired men and women from a variety of backgrounds, it seems like a good idea to make sure the actual workplace shows an appreciation of diversity. We're not talking about United Nations Day cookouts. But someone should be making certain that promotions, mentoring, and job training are allotted on an equal-opportunity basis. If they're not, then there's a lot more work to be done.

Who should serve on an audit committee for a city, county or state? That may sound like a kind of an arcane question. But hang with us for a moment, because this is important stuff. These committees oversee the audit process and are one of the best prophylactics available to protect government officials from debilitating and humiliating scandal. Some groups, notably the Government Finance Officers Association, have looked at the way laws have changed in the private sector, and now advance the case that these committees consist solely of members of the government body. The logic, we surmise, is that this will require them to take the work very seriously -- because insiders will be on the line if there are any muck-ups.

By contrast, the auditor community wants the committees to include men and women outside the governing body. Jay Poole, Advocacy Committee chair for the Association of Local Government Auditors, brought this to our attention. Here's what he has to say: "We prefer to have people on the audit committee who are knowledgeable about operational auditing and can adequately provide the oversight that we think is needed. You may not have people in the legislative branch who have that kind of expertise. In a lot of cases, you don't."

Before you can ask an agency or department to deliver results, it's a good idea to make sure everybody agrees about what the agency or department is actually supposed to do. A recent auditor's report from North Carolina makes just that point with regard to the state's Department of Commerce and its efforts in economic development. Listen: "Legislation appears to appoint Commerce as the lead agency; however, other legislation appears to deny it authority as the lead agency in key areas. Commerce officials state they are powerless to implement needed changes because they lack clear legislative authority. A consequence of this is North Carolina's economic development objectives, roles, and visions are not clear to many in the economic development community."

How do you know if a good idea in one city or state will work well elsewhere? The clear-minded folks in the Washington State Institute for Public Policy spend a lot of time thinking about that question in their work on evidence-based practices. One factor they believe is important to consider has been dubbed the "charismatic leader" effect. As Roxanne Lieb, the institute's director, told us, "If a [successful] program was run by its developer, we do a discount factor on the effect. If things are replicated multiple times [we can look at the] average effects, not just those that may be dependent on a charismatic leader."

While we're talking about evidence-based practices, we wanted to bring your attention to a very important op-ed piece that ran in the New York Times a little while ago. The author was Maia Szalavitz, a senior fellow at Stats, a media watchdog group. Her complaint is that "many mental health professionals stick with what they know, or pick up on the latest fad, or even introduce their own untested innovations -- which in turn are spread by testimonials and credulous news media coverage."

Given the amounts of state dollars spent on mental-health-related issues, this is a very expensive problem. One example, from Szalavitz: "Tough boot camps for troubled teenagers -- which have been proven to be ineffective and potentially harmful -- thrive, while 'multisystemic family therapy,' which effectively treats teenagers at home, is available only through the juvenile justice system."

And two last evidence-based notes: If you're involved in programs affecting children, families or communities, check out the Web sites for the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare or the Promising Practices Network. They will lead you to a whole host of interesting programs that seem to be achieving strong results. Similarly, if you're concerned with programs that help deal with violence prevention, try this site from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Just a thought: When a Washington County, Utah, correctional facility found employees involved in sexual misconduct, an independent audit was arranged. The Deseret Morning News reports that it revealed "low morale among staffers...." Maybe a good start would be changing the name of the place. It's currently dubbed the "Purgatory Correctional Facility."

Congratulations to the Palm Beach Post for an excellent piece on May 6 that talks about the benefits of good management in tax collection. At a time when it feels like most newspapers want to focus on tax policy -- largely complaining about how high their readers' tax bills appear to be -- it's impressive to see a publication looking at the skill with which governments use the policies they have to bring in the dollars already due them. Here, a short excerpt from the piece:

"With Palm Beach County officials facing large budget cuts and threatening to slash services as a result of tax relief proposals being considered in Tallahassee, stamping out homestead exemption fraud could add millions of dollars in property revenue to county coffers each year.... In Broward County alone, fraud investigators collected about $9.5 million in back taxes, penalties and interest in less than a year by hunting down more than 1,000 cheaters and forcing them to pay. Some cases went back as far as ten years.... But in Palm Beach County, efforts to catch cheats have been far more lax, resulting in just 43 cases since 2004. Investigators here have collected less than $325,000 in lost tax revenue, penalties and interest in the past three years."

We seem to be among the nation's leading cheerleaders for comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFRs). We've repeatedly complained that government budgets -- critically important planning documents, of course -- get all the attention. The year-end financials tell the story of what really happened to the state's money. It's our contention that folks need to look at both budget and CAFR to get the whole story.

One tiny quibble: When the Governmental Accounting Standards Board provided guidelines for the section of the report called Management's Discussion and Analysis, it recommended that they include something called "currently known facts." That would include information that came into being between the end of the fiscal year and the release of the CAFR. Dean Mead, GASB's project manager, mentioned to us that cities, counties and states usually use this opportunity to give more information about the economic outlook and the ensuing budget -- not about specific events, such as legal changes, that significantly affect the government's finances as portrayed in the financial statements. That's information we'd like to have, and while it might only exist for some reporting entities, it doesn't seem likely that nothing important ever happens in those months.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba