Recession: Not the Time to Gut Employee Training Programs

Plus: The final word on flowers, the perils of bad data, and more
November 5, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

What's the easiest thing to cut from a state, county or city budget? We're not exactly sure, but we can guarantee that "training" falls on the list of expenses that are most quickly put on the chopping block. We've commented in the past that this may not be the best idea in the world -- cutting worthwhile training can actually cost money in the long term, as employees become less productive and efficient.

With that in mind, kudos to the California Department of Motor Vehicles for resolutely hanging onto its so-called "Leadership Academy," which offers high-level courses at the University of California in Sacramento. It's not squishy stuff they're learning. Employees who apply and get in are supposed to "immediately use what they learn," according to an article in the Sacramento Bee .

"Often training goes by the wayside in difficult budget times," Barbara Rooney, head of DMV's training branch, told the Bee. "But really that's the last thing that should go."

Are you interested in more commentary about the question of using taxpayer dollars to pay for flowers for sick employees? We heard from a great many of you about this topic. Here's what you said.

In our recent Smart Management column in Governing , we bemoaned the lack of sufficient solid data to effectively run government. With that topic in mind, we were particularly struck by recent testimony about medical errors, given by New York City comptroller -- and recent mayoral candidate -- William C. Thompson, Jr. According to Thompson, there were big differences among hospitals in individual categories. For example, he explained, "Some hospitals reported 'acute pulmonary embolism' at rates 30 times [higher than] other comparable hospitals." Even more alarming, New York City hospitals reported just 37 incidents involving medication errors from 2004 and 2007. This, despite a previous study that showed that "some 7,000 hospital patients die from medication errors in the U.S. every year" and many others are injured.

How did the comptroller explain these anomalies? Extremely weak enforcement of reporting requirements.

Interested in the management of education (and policy and more)? We'd recommend you subscribe to the ASCD Smartbrief, which is chock-full of stuff such as the following: "Educators nationwide are talking about 'value-added' teacher-evaluation systems that measure individual student progress on standardized tests from year to year instead of comparing raw test results to other students and schools. The system -- praised by the Obama administration -- also has been used as a gauge of effective teaching. However, teachers unions have resisted 'value-added' evaluation systems, saying that student progress and teacher effectiveness cannot be measured by standardized tests."

We've heard that the recession is over. We've seen the headlines in the newspapers and and the stories on television. So it must be true. And at the same time, state and local governments are still in a huge budgetary bind -- one that's likely to continue for some time. We can't help but wonder if the general impression that the economy has turned is going to make it trickier for public-sector leaders to sell taxpayers on the kinds of management initiatives necessary for tough times. After all, the recession is over, right?

On the face of it, closing poor-performing schools sounds like a sensible idea. But what happens if the unfortunate children are shuttled off to other below-par schools? Just what you'd expect, according to a study by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research, cited in Education Week . According to EdWeek, "A majority of Chicago students affected by school closings were sent to schools that were low-performing, just like those they left behind -- moves that had no significant impact on performance for most students," the study found.

"Certainly, when schools were closed for academic reasons, the idea was to try to change their educational prospects and what they might obtain. Unfortunately, we didn't find that," Julia Gwynne, a senior research analyst with the consortium and the report's co-author told EW. "The main reason why that seems not to have occurred was because most students did not attend schools that were substantially better than the ones that were closed."

The lesson here: Before you jump off a sinking ship into a lifeboat, make sure the lifeboat isn't leaking too.

Given the portion of our lives we've devoted to evaluating and rating states and cities, we're always reticent to say much about anyone else's similar efforts. Glass houses and all that. But we just ran across a little list of the rankings for Milwaukee on, and couldn't help but comment. According to the site, Milwaukee is the second safest city (largely, it turns out, because there aren't many floods or tornadoes there -- the metro area is 24th worst out of 40 for violent crime). But wait, Milwaukee was also judged to be 39th out of 40 "recession-proof retirement cities"; the 23rd most stressful city; and located in the third worst state for business. Pretty bleak, huh? But get this: It's also claimed to be the fourth best city for working mothers -- who presumably are not put off by business climate, stress, violent crime or insecure retirements.

You could have seen this one coming. There are two ways states can appear to show improvements in education. The first is the obvious one: Build a bunch of more competent, better educated young people. The second is somewhat more cynical: Make the evaluation easier. Sadly, according to a new study by the National Center for Education Statistics, a number of states are turning to the latter.

Take a look at this excerpt from the study's conclusions: "Almost one-half of the states changed aspects of their assessment policies or the assessment itself between 2005 and 2007 in ways that prevented their reading or mathematics test results from being comparable across these two years. Either explicitly or implicitly, such states have adopted new performance standards. ... [For states with both years of data,] standards for proficiency were lower in 2007 in one-third to one half of the states that made such changes."

Memphis residents may have been alarmed by a recent piece in the Commercial Appeal pointing out that the city's temporary workers are apparently paid a rather wide range of hourly wages, some getting around $12 and others getting paid $20 and up. The piece intimated that there was a need for more transparency in terms of setting those pay levels. This got us to wondering how many cities could benefit from a review of the way temps are paid. It's just the kind of thing that can escape transparent guidelines until there's a problem.

When fiscal times are tough for cities, counties and states, one potential solution is to raise taxes. Of course, many people will argue that raising taxes in rough times isn't the best path to getting the economy booming again. That makes some sense to us. On the other hand, when unemployment rates are low and business is humming along, the states don't need the money so much. So that, too, isn't a propitious time to raise taxes. We're not arguing in favor of raising taxes versus cutting expenses, by any means, as the proper solution for any government right now. All we're wondering is this: When taxes do need to go up, when is the best time to take the step?

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan