Opposite Day

Plus: A state-city disconnect, an entirely unscientific poll about performance measures, and more
December 4, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

It's Opposite Day in Tennessee. From coast to coast, cities, counties and states are trying to consolidate purchases of goods and services in order to reap the cost advantages of larger purchases. But back in June, a Tennessee judge accomplished quite the opposite. The judge declared that mental health evaluations for juvenile offenders were a county responsibility, not a state one. That's a decision that will end up costing everyone a whole lot more.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the state was paying about $6.7 million for these evaluations, and providing the same service will cost the counties almost three times as much -- $20 million. That's because the counties won't be able to make use of the contracts the state has negotiated with private vendors or get the same price the state gets at state-run facilities. So now the counties are going to have to figure out how to confederate in some way to get prices down.

There may be good legal reasons for the judge's decision. We can't argue that. But from a fiscal point of view, it's problematic.

A few weeks back, we spoke at the National League of Cities' Congress of Cities in Orlando. There were thousands of people associated with city government in attendance, and even a solid smattering of folks from the federal government. You know who wasn't there? People from state government. Sure, there were a few, but very few. If we were a governor, we'd make sure that a few representatives of the state were at this conference, if only to demonstrate to municipalities that their existence is appreciated.

The highlight of our presentation at the NLC Congress came when we asked a crowd of nearly 200 people, most of whom were representing smaller entities, if they thought their communities had made noticeably better use of performance measures over the past decade or so. We really didn't know what kind of response to expect, as most of our work has focused in on larger places. Over two-thirds of the attendees raised their hands. Hardly scientific. But exciting.

As if New York nonprofits didn't have enough problems with the fiscal downturn, they also face significant delays in getting their contracts with state agencies approved. In 2007, about seven out of 10 grant contracts were processed late -- some by as much as a year -- according to a report from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

This is a long-standing problem. Just ask Susan Hager, CEO of United Way of New York State. She started lobbying to improve the situation when she was pregnant with her daughter. Her daughter is now a sophomore at the University of Buffalo.

In 2007, legislators tried to speed things up a bit, imposing penalties on agencies with late contracts. But that wasn't a particularly effective approach. Plenty of penalties are paid, but the delays continue.

What's more, with the current financial crisis, the problem looks as if it's getting worse, not better. More levels of review have been imposed on the contracting process, slowing things down even further. The delays are particularly sad because the state counts on non-profits to carry out multiple state programs.

"Not-for-profits are all being squeezed," Susan Hager told us. "There's no way to do the kind of planning or quality review or innovation you could do if you're always living hand to mouth, waiting for the state."

We wonder if other states, cities or counties have had the same problem -- and if they may have come up with a solution that might help New York.

Do inadequate people ever stay in jobs because their bosses are afraid to fire them? That was the question we posed a couple of weeks ago. We got a nice handful of interesting responses, but our favorite came from Shawn Nau, county manager of La Plata County, Colorado:

"This one brings me back to a story (quite possibly apocryphal, since I was never able to verify its accuracy) that I first heard back in the mid-80s while serving as an assistant attorney general in the Ohio AG's office. As the story went, there once was a records manager of an upstate Ohio school district who seemed to be widely recognized as a complete performance nightmare. Despite this, she apparently was never in any danger of being fired. The reason? She had "organized" all of the district's past and present student files by the second letter of the student's last name ... and no one could figure out her filing system. Now that's job security."

On the same question, we got the following comment from the contracts manager of a large Western state:

"Seems to me that if this kind of situation is allowed to develop, it is either because of lack of good thinking about how to set up internal controls, or more likely, a failure to effectively manage employees. It's highly unlikely an employee would instantly become 'untrustworthy.' It's more likely that the organization has slowly allowed itself to get rotten on the inside. Also, I've always considered that having to deal with a few bad apples should not cause us to reflexively over-react -- I am worried to see paranoiac 'sledgehammer' policies ("no use of internet except with specific pre-approval") that tell the majority of employees they can't be trusted to do their job or help the organization..."

Manager's Reading List: Our ongoing feature about books to read, recommended by B&G readers

Mike Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at University of Illinois in Chicago, has a suggestion for managers concerned about stress in the workplace:

"Many years ago, Dick Nathan (of the State University of New York at Albany) sent around a list of books that he'd been reading. I found it quite interesting (and revealing of the voracious appetite he had!). The book I read a chapter at a time (jumping back and forth to other books) is by Robert Sapolvsky and it's titled Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. It's a great book on biology...written for a broad audience; easily accessible; and the humor and anecdotes are terrific! It deals with stress, the body's chemical composition and how the body responds to certain stimuli (e.g., stress!), and how the nervous system processes it all."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

"It is a very big change for educators to see data not as a hammer, but as a flashlight." That line, from an article in Education Week, came from Aimee Guidera, the director of the Data Quality Campaign, an Austin-based group that promotes the use of longitudinal data to improve schools.

Here's some more insight from the piece, which appeared in late October:

"Attempts to introduce teacher-effect data without a consensus on appropriate use have generated controversy. The New York state legislature last year banned the use of such data for tenure decisions for two years after a dispute between the New York City school district and the United Federation of Teachers.

"But last month, the city garnered the union's support for a pilot program to provide teachers and their principals with value-added information. The data will be used to help teachers improve, but not for human-capital decisions, said Christopher Cerf, the deputy schools chancellor.

"The reports are expected to show whether a teacher, on average, is particularly effective with certain groups of students, such as those at the low end of the achievement spectrum or students with disabilities. Then, principals will be better able to tailor professional development and improve student groupings, Mr. Cerf said.

"'If you are going to rely on the innovative powers of educators, you must give them data and information in order to make intelligent decisions,' he said."

You might think that Hawaii's legislative reference library would be of limited use to governments on the mainland. You'd be wrong. Take a look at its "First Reading" blog -- www.1streading.blogspot.com/ -- which features an often updated write-up of studies and reports from around the country that librarians select for Hawaii's legislators. Since many of the topics are national in nature, we think a lot of them will be of interest to government managers and leaders from other states as well -- a comment we've also made about the news items featured by Minnesota's Legislative Reference Library, referenced in our very first B&G Report in December 2006.

We received the following note from Michelle McGurk, senior policy advisor and public information officer of the city of San Jose. We're reprinting it here as a clarification to an item we ran last month:

"I recently read the item...regarding San Jose's Independent Police Auditor. While the story does not specifically state what happened to San Jose's IPA, it implies that she was fired, which is not accurate. In San Jose, the IPA is appointed to a four-year term. The City Council voted not to offer the IPA another four-year term."

Mayor Chuck Reed's statement following the vote is posted here.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba