Recession Aggression

Keeping an eye on California, how most states are bungling stimulus accountability, and more
August 6, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Are people ticked off at government? That is, more than usual? We'd like to hear from you. It feels like a combination of government cutbacks and the tough economy overall, which is making many people pretty tense, has led to more frustration with city, county and state government than usual. Do you agree? Are state employees feeling like scapegoats? Do you have any examples to share about increased citizen hostility?

E-mail us and let us know!

Everybody is interested in California these days, it seems. At times, it feels a little like the attraction of watching car racing. People hope no one will crash, but some folks get a secret charge out of it when a car spins out of control. At any rate, if you're avidly interested in what's going on in the Golden State, then you should know about California's civil grand jury system. State law requires that all 58 counties have one of these so-called grand juries (no relation, as far as we can tell, to the type you see on "Law and Order"). Their job: to scrutinize the conduct of public business of county government. There were dozens of reports released for the 2008-09 period. An Internet search of the phrase "civil grand jury" and the name of any California county will bring up reports like the following: The Numbers Have Something to Say, Is Anybody Listening? Performance Measurement (PM) in San Francisco City Government, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority - Taking the Public for a Ride, Condition of Orange County Jails, and Enhancing Ombudsman's Responsibilities within Child Welfare Services

"While some states have created impressive websites to disseminate information about their share of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), most are failing to make effective use of online technology to educate taxpayers about the impact of economic stimulus spending." That was the conclusion of a report called Show Us the Stimulus, by Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.

According to the report, there's a wide range in how well the states are helping taxpayers understand what's going on. Based on 10 criteria, each state was graded on a scale of zero to 100. Maryland did best on its main site with an 80, while Illinois managed to garner a zero based on the report's determination that its site "has only national figures and nothing on how much is being spent in the state."

A few striking conclusions: Only four states are providing any employment data for individual projects on their main ARRA site (as distinct from their highway reporting). Only three states (Maine, New Mexico and Virginia) show county-by-county information. And only 10 states provide contractor names and dollar amounts on their main site.

By the way, you can find a full list of the state stimulus-tracking sites on Governing's Stimulus and Recovery page.

We had a lively lunch the other day with the Urban Institute's Harry Hatry, one of the great men in the world of performance measurement. One of the most interesting topics of the conversation was the need for more explanatory information in performance measures. This is hardly a new idea. Experts in the field have long recommended that governments include information to help explain outcomes. But very few agencies actually do it. And upon reflection, we can hardly think of a change in the way people report that would make the product more credible and useful for analysis. Harry recommends that governments: (a) have formal requirements for such explanations; (b) encourage managers to provide explanations (often it is in the manager's best interest to do so); (c) follow up on those explanations to assess whether they are substantive and not merely lip service; and (d) use that information when making resource and policy decisions.

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

A few hours after we had finished our salmon, it struck us that Harry Hatry would doubtless have some good recommendations for books to read. We asked, and here's his recommendation: Bob Stone's 2004 book, "Confessions of a Civil Servant." According to Hatry, "This is a very readable book on the 'darker' side of government, describing his struggles in improving service quality both at DOD and then for Al Gore's National Performance Review. It is full of fine examples of struggles to change the focus of government to a 'customer' orientation."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

Put this in the rock-and-hard-place file. In working on an upcoming management column about overtime for Governing, we ran across accounts of some real difficulties in Atlanta's jails. Turns out that the corrections staff doesn't show up for work about 21 percent of the time, according to a city audit. That means, in turn, that the city has been forced to use a lot of overtime to make up for all the allegedly aching backs and impending cases of flu. That part is the rock. Here's the hard place: Atlanta was leasing excess space to federal prisoners, and overtime wasn't an allowable expense in the federal per diem costs. So, according to city auditor Leslie Ward, "any time we were using overtime we were unable to recover the cost."

How is this possible? According to the Washington Post , "The D.C. Council is struggling to determine whether it can close a $666 million revenue shortfall without raising taxes and fees, reopening a debate about whether District residents have a higher tax burden than their neighbors in Virginia and Maryland." We find it astonishing that it should be a matter of ongoing debate as to whether DC has a higher tax burden than neighboring states. We don't know the answer, but shouldn't it be transparently obvious? With all the anger and frustration emanating from all sides about state and local tax burdens, we continue to wonder why nobody has come up with a universally recognized, rational and fair calculation.

Whether or not President Obama succeeds with his health care initiative, it's clearly important that the states continue to work on ways to hold health care costs in line. A very interesting new study by the Segal Company does a fine job at covering much of the waterfront.

We were particularly interested in a short list of the kinds of ways the states are trying to put a lid on this fast-growing expenditure. They are, according to the report:

o Maximizing federal program subsidies, particularly for Medicare-eligible retirees,

o Making program design changes to balance premium increases and participant out-of-pocket costs,

o Renegotiating and bidding vendor contracts to obtain the most up-to-date market pricing and discounts,

o Auditing plan administrators of self-insured programs to identify processing and overpayment issues,

o Targeting wellness and disease management programs to address the primary cost drivers, and

o Planning communications to educate participants in making wise and healthy choices.

This depressed us. It seems, according to the New York Times , that New York City officials are no longer allowing parents to pay for classroom aides, whom the city could otherwise not afford in many cases. We always thought that friends of ours who were able to pitch in a few extra dollars to give their kids a better education in a public school were pretty lucky. It seemed like a simple, positive public-private partnership to us. Now, after a complaint by the powerful teachers union, the aides have to be employees of the district.

One complaint about the parent-paid aides has been that it's unfair for middle class communities to be able to provide a higher level of education than poor neighborhoods. We're as concerned about equity as the next guys, but we worry that decisions like this can just contribute to an exodus of the middle class from the public schools.

The world is full of good ideas, but many of them fall apart in the implementation phase. Nassau County, New York, for example, has a fuel monitoring system requiring that when somebody puts gas into one of its vehicles, both the person and the vehicle be identified. But according a recent audit by the county comptroller, it was nearly impossible for the county to really monitor this information. As a result, under the category of "unusual activity," the auditor found that two driver fuel cards were used for 388 gallons of gas, notwithstanding the fact that the employees who had been issued the cards were long retired. There were 11 instances in which gas cards were being used to fill vehicles that were no longer in the county's fleet. And the list of infractions goes on.

Some of the problems, the audit notes, could have been pretty easily averted: "Auditors also found a lack of written policy and procedures when it came to issuing the fuel cards, accounting for issued cards, the return of surplus cards and the handling and replacement of lost or misplaced cards. Misplaced or lost cards were re-issued with the same numbers, a practice which could result in multiple cards with the same identification number being actively used by different people."

Right now, the county is setting up a new automated real-time fueling system, which should make it far easier to monitor the use of fuel. But this audit makes us wonder, in a time when every nickel counts, how many other cities, states and counties are similarly out of control when it comes to expensive vehicle fuel.

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan