Putting Performance in Child-Welfare Services

Plus: Whether CEOs matter, the public-private slowdown, and more
June 4, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

How should governments fund child-welfare service providers? Typically, states base their cash outlays on the size of the caseload and the volume of the service. But Washington State has just embarked on an alternative approach that sounds very sensible. On May 19, Governor Christine Gregoire "approved sweeping changes to the child-welfare system that will use performance-based contracts and private-sector competition to drive state dollars toward proven strategies for helping children and troubled families," according to a press release from Representative Ruth Kagi, the lead sponsor of the reforms.

"The new approach will focus on rewarding those service providers who most effectively help at-risk children and families," Kagi said. This sounds a whole lot more sensible than rewarding service providers whose caseloads and workloads grow and grow. "The reform gives the Department of Social and Health Services until January 2011 to convert some 1,800 existing child-welfare system contracts into performance contracts."

"Do CEOs Matter?" That's the headline of an article in the current issue of the Atlantic. We were taken with the following paragraph that, we believe, applies to the public as well as private sector. The author refers to J. Richard Hackman's 2002 book, "Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances". "[Hackman] argues that small groups perform best when they operate collaboratively and not merely as drones subordinated to a leader. The team leader's job is to establish the conditions that enable team members to collaborate competently; the leader needs to spell out exactly where teams should end up, but not dictate the step-by-step process of getting there."

There is absolutely no question in our minds that using public-private partnerships to provide infrastructure is an almost unstoppable approach. But such partnerships are hardly moving full-speed ahead anymore. According to Tollroadsnews.com, the Florida Department of Transportation received no bids from private-sector firms for the so-called "Alligator Alley," the cross-state toll road that runs from the Miami area to the Gulf Coast near Naples. Apparently there was significant interest months ago, as four major bidders had considered throwing their hats in the ring. But in these very uncertain economic times, no one actually chose to make a bid.

Many of the commissions that are set up to streamline government processes, cut waste and promote efficiency create products that wind up as bookshelf fodder (or maybe, in these digital days, we should say they're buried in bytes).

With that in mind, we're very interested in the efforts of the Sage Commission in Nevada. Predecessor commissions haven't been wildly successful. "Every living governor in Nevada has tried the same thing," says Bruce James, the commission's chair. "Almost everyone was discouraged because of lack of implementation.

But this particular commission is trying a different route. Instead of delivering one massive final report at the end of the commission's two-year life, it delivers a new set of recommendations every 90 days and the governor reports back to the commission on implementation every 90 days. "I didn't want to have my time wasted," says James, "This keeps everyone's focus and encourages commission members to go forward."

Did you know that there are some three million unfilled jobs in the United States, despite the very high unemployment rates? And that one of the significant places where those jobs can be found is in government?

We recommend to you the cover story from the May 11, 2009, issue of Business Week, which explains that that disparity is "evidence of an emerging structural shift in the U.S. economy that has created serious mismatches between workers and employers. People thrown out of shrinking sectors such as construction, finance and retail lack the skills and training for openings in growing fields including education, accounting, health care and government. At the same time, the worst housing bust in decades has left the unemployed frozen in place. They can't move to get work because they can't sell their homes."

Legislators in cities, counties and states take note of this the next time you decide to cut back on budgets by shrinking training dramatically.

Our management column in the current print issue of Governing looks at how governments make the decision on whether or not to contract with the private sector.

But what about figuring out exactly whom they should contract with? We've just come across a very sensible and practical aid to cities, states and counties that want to more easily research potential vendors. It comes from the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. For years, it seems, the state had required agencies to hand in a one-page report "summarizing the purpose of the contract, stating the amount spent on the contract, and including a written performance evaluation of the work done under the contract." Until recently, all this useful information resided in binders in the library. "Now," the library reports, "it is possible to learn of agencies' experiences with various vendors by searching online."

Want to see where the cuts are falling in state budgets? Take a look at these handy tables produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While we're praising NCSL, it might be worthwhile to note that one of our favorite blogs -- by far -- is one produced by NCSL, called The Thicket. We've made reference to it in past B&G Reports, and we strongly recommend that our readers check it out regularly. One recent item that struck us was this: "In one of the more unusual budget cutting moves, the Maine Legislature has passed a constitutional amendment to downsize the House from 151 to 131 members. Maine's House districts are some of the smallest in the country with approximately 8,400 people in each constituency. The size reduction will change that number to 10,000 per district and is estimated to save $1.5 million over two years. (For background on this subject, see 'What's the Right Size for a Legislature?')"

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

From Julie Lobur, project manager for the Business Solutions Center of Excellence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Office of Administration: "My all time favorite manager's book is: Why Employees Don't Do What They're Supposed To and What You Can Do About It , by Ferdinand F. Fournies, now in its second edition. What I like most about this book is that it is not gimmicky. It takes a remarkably objective approach to correcting performance problems. It works whether you're in the public or private sector."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Tom Sadowski, the one-time chief accountant for the state of Missouri, who retired from the state on June 1st. He has regularly commented on B&G Report items -- and always with insights we found helpful. We have our fingers crossed that the notes will keep coming as Tom moves on to other endeavours.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba