Public Managers' Time-Vampires

Plus: Why to avoid group e-mails, taxing other states' muni bonds, and more
November 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Meetings. Meetings. More meetings. They're tenacious time vampires for many public-sector officials. This month, we're reaching out to you for thoughts. Are there too many meetings in your office? What's the prime time-waster in a meeting room? Any tips for cutting down on the number of meetings or their duration? Please email us.

Our minds are on meetings right now, in the wake of Governing's Managing Performance conference held in Brooklyn last month. We presented "seven secrets to good management," which actually turned out to be 14. Many of them were provided by the readers of the B&G Report, and we'll be sharing them with you all in the months to come.

But it was the last half-hour or so of the session we enjoyed most. We opened the floor to the folks who attended -- asking for answers, not questions. And when the conversation began to flow, it quickly segued into a fascinating dialogue about the things that clutter up people's lives -- notably, meetings and e-mail. Seemed like everyone in the room was swamped with the electronic stuff, and we're not talking about spam here.

One good tip that emerged: If you want someone to respond to your e-mail, don't send it to them as part of a group. When you do that, everyone can assume it's up to someone else to get back. Better to send a bunch of one-to-one e-mails. A little sneaky, maybe, but apparently effective.

In late October, the U.S. States Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments about a case that has at least some potential of creating chaos in the states' municipal bond markets. As you doubtless know, most states don't tax interest on municipal bonds issued in their state. Bonds issued in other states are, of course, eligible for taxation. A Kentucky appeals court decided that this long-standing situation was contrary to the ground rules for interstate commerce.

If the appeals court ruling stands, it will hand the states a sky-high bill because, as North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper explained in a friend-of-the-court brief, they could be forced to refund taxes that were wrongly collected in recent years. He's not alone in his concern. According to the Los Angeles Times, "all 49 states joined Kentucky in urging the court to reverse the state court's ruling."

One of the most-mentioned solutions for a whole bevy of government problems is to consolidate agencies and departments. Another commonly recommended approach? De-consolidate.

Obviously, it's not like one route or the other is always the right one. So when we noticed that Nebraska had reversed course after a decision about a decade ago to consolidate, we called Gerry Oligmeuller, the state's budget administrator, to see if there were any significant lessons learned. We've worked with him for years now, and he's one of the most level-headed, thoughtful budgeters around.

As he tells the story: "In the mid '90s there was competing policy between two organizations: the Department of Social Services and the Department of Public Institutions. You had a fragmentation of the financing and the service responsibilities. And that was a primary cause for throwing everything into the pot ... a drive to reform internal processes and practices."

The consequence? "It fused significantly the identity of what the huge organization does for the citizen," which helped make state government seem even more incomprehensible to the people it serves.

So now Nebraska is reversing course by creating far more visible individual entities, including veteran' services, developmental disabilities services and behavioral health. Though all are under a single executive officer, "this most recent organization [should let] the public know who is doing what, what it's costing and where relative investments are along the continuum of services," says Oligmeuller.

Oligmeuller suggests that many of the questions of structure aren't as important as they once were thanks to technology that makes it easy to transfer information across agency lines. While the mid-'90s re-organization focused on solving problems that were largely related to internal communication, this time around the focus is on the external users of the departments' services. That certainly sounds sensible to us.

It's really important to distinguish between employees who need their skills upgraded and those who should never have been given the job in the first place. This was one of the excellent points made recently by Marti Harkness, staff director for criminal justice of the Florida legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Harkness' plain speaking led her to point to a series of "don't"s in human resources:

o Don't postpone the inevitable.

o Don't pass a poor performer on to other supervisors.

o Don't rely on the "eventually they will leave" strategy.

o Don't be vague about skill deficiencies.

We ran across a piece from the Seattle Times (on, actually) and wanted to put our two cents in. The thrust of the story is that the Washington State Hospital Association has ceased trying to block the release of information about medical errors. According to a related article, the association had long complained that the information wasn't useful and that it put too much blame on specific hospitals without enough explanation. The association has now agreed to support disclosure as long as some context about each hospital is included. Even now, though, there doesn't seem to be a guarantee that this fascinating -- and potentially volatile -- information will be released anytime soon.

Of course, it's true that data, without context, can be worse than no information at all. That said, we're real believers in this kind of disclosure. As long as the measures are right, permitting the public to know how good a job individual hospitals are doing at keeping people healthy is probably a good way to let the marketplace work as an Adam Smith-ian regulatory system.

It's easy to be impressed when you hear that a city or state has put together a major oversight office filled with top-level people. Nowadays, though, to paraphrase Jerry McGuire: Show us the results.

The most recent example to cross our desks: An audit by the board of supervisors in San Francisco determined that the city has been wasting lots of money thanks to a lack of oversight and planning when it bought computers and computer systems. But wait. Didn't San Francisco have a Committee on Information Technology? And hasn't it been around for about a decade? Turns out the answer is yes. "But," according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "it was largely inactive between 2003 and 2006." Only this year has it begun meeting monthly.

Our Web site recommendation of the month is the National Conference of State Legislative Research Librarians staff section. There's lots there pertaining to the sharing of good information for legislators' use. But the section we like best contains a treasure trove of 50-state comparisons. Take a look.

Disaster preparedness has been written about quite a lot lately. Mostly the focus is on pandemics, floods, fires and so on. We keep thinking that information technology is particularly susceptible to disasters -- and no less critical than a road, bridge or building. With this in mind, we were interested to see some of Missouri CIO Dan Ross's testimony before U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives.

In his full written testimony, Ross stated, "As the nation becomes increasingly Internet- and technology-dependent, the need to avert a prolonged, large-scale loss or disruption of critical IT infrastructure or the Internet due to a cyber attack, natural disaster, or terrorist incident, becomes as basic as securing our homes, borders and modes of mass transportation. However, should an Internet or network disruption take place, it is essential that we have effective and well-coordinated processes in place to ensure successful and rapid restoration of critical IT systems and applications as well as the Internet."

Years ago, we heard then-New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi say something like the following: "Government isn't bad. It's stupid government that's bad."

We've always liked this notion, and we see another application of it to the whole area of outsourcing. If you look at the topic, based exclusively on press clips, it often appears as though there are two armed camps -- pro- and anti-outsourcing -- throwing rocks at one another. But the truth, as we see it, is that there's lots of opportunity to sensibly contract out all manner of services -- as long as there's sufficient and appropriate oversight.

This came to mind as we read in the White River Junction, Vermont, Valley News about a privatized nursing home, long ballyhooed as a good example of beneficial privatization. According to the paper, "Independent audits of the nursing home's finances tell a different story. Those audits show that the nursing home -- in contrast to the past declarations of public officials -- lost more money than it brought in," over the past two and a half years. "Under private management, the nursing home continued to rely on hefty subsidies from taxpayers to stay afloat, as it had under public administration, the audits reveal. And as county commissioners look ahead, they are struggling to cope with a $2.3 million shortfall in projected income from the nursing home that will likely have to be made up by raising taxes."

Our big question: Why did it take an audit, some 30 months after the contract began, to pick up the fiscal problems?

Chula Vista, California, may not the biggest city around. With a population of 227,000, it's about the 14th largest in its state. But based on a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune, it is exhibiting the kind of short-term focus that has set cities of all sizes on the path to pain. In an effort to avoid laying off employees now, the city decided to offer pretty hefty incentives to early retirees; anyone who heads for the doors in the next few months will get two years of service credit and up to two years of paid medical.

Councilman Jerry Rindone, who opposed the measure, was quoted in the Union-Tribune as saying that the plan represented "short-term savings with long-term impacts." The article indicates that the early-retirement plan will save $8 million per year. But the first problem is that the extra cost of the early retirements is estimated at $4.2 million, which will be paid out over 20 years beginning in 2011. And the bigger problem is the distinct possibility that the city will eventually refill many of the newly vacant positions -- notably police officers -- which means that taxpayers will be paying new salaries, while still saddled with the cost of the retirements. "This only works for me if we are not planning to employ someone in each position for 20 years," Rindone was quoted as saying.

According to a Harvard report, "Medicaid patients fare worse than commercial HMO patients on 10 of 11 quality measures." But before any states start to declare managed care a failure in their Medicaid programs, we have a question to ask: Are they taking enough advantage of the information that's been gathered to help improve management? We've come across a great many reports that have wonderful performance information comparing Medicaid managed-care plans in the public and private sectors. We hope that somebody is really using this stuff before they invoke draconian measures or start re-inventing their plans from the bottom up.

Many states now have "quality" reports. Here's a small sampler:

2006 Performance Report for Utah Commercial HMOs and Medicaid and CHIP Health Plans

New York State Web site that that compares public and private health insurance in New York State across different factors, such as access to care

New Mexico Health Policy Commission, 2007 Quick Facts (see "Health Quality" section on p. 41)

"DMA HEDIS® Data, Reporting Year 2006," North Carolina Division of Medical Assistance

Just came across this quote from Thomas Jefferson, and we're hanging it in our office: "Information is the currency of democracy."

For the past several years, the oncoming wave of baby-boom related retirements has become common knowledge. Cities, counties and states from coast to coast worry about how they'll replace all these trained staffers in their agencies. Curiously, we hadn't given much thought to the fact that this kind of phenomenon was likely occurring in other sectors of government.

That's why we turn to people like the National Conference of State Legislatures' Karl Kurtz. As he wrote on NCSL's blog, The Thicket, "We don't have historical data to back this up, but at NCSL we have the impression that an unusual wave of retirements by senior legislative staff managers began about a year ago and is likely to continue for the next several years, as baby boomers begin to reach retirement age. Our observation is that the movement to expand and professionalize legislative staff that began in the late 1960s led to a generation of staffers who committed their careers to the state legislature and rose to management positions. Those senior managers are now starting to retire."

This is potentially alarming news. And it's even more so in cities and states with term limits, in which the legislative staff may represent most of the institutional memory of an entity.

Full disclosure: Our son is a junior at the University of North Carolina, so we may be a bit biased.

That said, on a recent visit to the campus -- during which we were invited to speak to a group of public administration students -- we learned a lot more about how the School of Government works there. We'll let the school's Web site speak for itself: "As the largest university-based local government training, advisory, and research organizations in the United States, the School of Government offers up to 200 classes seminars, schools and specialized conferences for more than 12,000 public officials each year."

That's a tidy number, particularly when you know that the whole master's of public administration program there has under 30 students altogether. It seemed to us that, just as there's a growing trend to persuade universities to work closely with the private sector in states in order to encourage economic development, there's a similarly powerful strategy to be found in encouraging the schools to be catalysts for well-managed governments in the states' localities.

Apparently, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez doesn't like the sound of the word "profit."

According to a piece in the Albuquerque Journal, the city brought in some $5.8 million over expenses with a traffic-camera enforcement program. Writes T.J. Woiljham in the Journal, the mayor "cautions, however, against using the word 'profit' to describe the $5.8 million. He called it 'excess' money. 'This program was never designed to make money,' Chávez said."

We understand what the mayor is getting at. But it would surprise us if many other mayors adapted the use of the word "excess" to any dollars residing in city coffers. Voters, we suspect, understand the word "excess" as something you should either throw out or give away.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba