"Silly" Stimulus Spending

Plus: The balanced-budget myth, Oregon's progressive Progress Board, and more
March 5, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

What's an acceptable use of stimulus dollars and what's silly and unnecessary? A couple of weeks ago, we launched a defense of municipal golf courses and parks, saying they were fairly reasonable ways of stimulating the economy and creating jobs. Given the enormity of the stimulus package, we weren't surprised to get some thoughtful responses.

Kevin Anderson, chairman of the Tulsa Economic Roundtable, wrote, "Would someone please explain why roads would create more jobs than building a park?"

Jessie Israel, section manager for the partnerships and business development team at King County Parks, added that "if [golf courses] are well run, they can be a profit center that make money for local parks, which decreases future reliance on tax revenue for keeping parks open to the public."

And Denise Lanza, assistant director for the park commission for Morris County, New Jersey, wrote that "here in New Jersey, tourism is the number-three business in the state. The investment of stimulus dollars will create jobs and reflect back in income, not to mention giving people who can no longer go away on vacation the ability to find some small amount of respite in their backyards."

Barry Crook, assistant city manager in Aspen, had a somewhat different point of view. "Maybe what's 'silly' about this is the fact that the federal government is going to pay for things that state and local governments don't seem interested enough to pay for. So taxpayers in Iowa, Alabama and Oregon get to pay...for things that a local government like Lincoln or Austin is unwilling to pay for themselves."

More thoughts on "silly" stimulus spending? E-mail us and let us know.

How many times have you heard an elected official defend his or her state's record by explaining that "unlike the federal government, we need to have a balanced budget"? While this may be true for all the states except Vermont, it somewhat oversimplifies matters. All a balanced budget really means is that you assemble revenue and expenditure estimates at the beginning of the year, and prepare for supplemental spending, cuts or tax changes through the year when things don't quite work out. It's not like a balanced budget actually stops states from making mistakes that require mid-course corrections. Vermont, which lacks such a stipulation, doesn't seem to have fallen off the map, by the way.

The Oregon Progress Board lives up to its name with the release of its 2009 Benchmark Highlights Report. We strongly recommend that you take a look. An online "generator" was put in place a few years ago to give citizens and policy makers an opportunity to easily dig down into individual objectives and measures, and it has now been altered to make the benchmarks easier to find. Particularly worthy of note is the way the report helpfully disaggregates data. Some 30 of the state's 90 benchmarks can be tracked down to the county level, and the Progress Board has tried to increase the utility of the benchmarks by creating special Web pages for each state Senate district. Slide shows, oriented to specific counties, also help legislators focus on how counties within their districts stack up against others.

If you're interested in more information about the Oregon Progress Board, check out Jonathan Walters' article from the April 2008 issue of Governing.

Pay for performance is a pretty contentious topic, and we don't really know how much you can extrapolate from the following fascinating example, but it's nonetheless worth noting: Apparently, improving blood sugar and cholesterol in diabetes patients is a particularly taxing effort for physicians who need to stay on top of those cases continually. So Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx gave physicians in its 21 community-based centers up to $3,200 annually for attaining target measures in their diabetic population. Subsequent to the program's introduction, blood sugar and cholesterol levels dropped significantly among many in the hospital's diabetic patients.

We were just talking to our daughter, Sandy, who is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin (go Badgers!). She had just gotten back a paper she'd written for a history course. The grade was A/B. No complaints about the grade, but what really pleased her? "I really understand why I didn't get an A, so now I know what to do on the next paper," she said.

The application of this idle comment to any kind of performance evaluations immediately struck us. If employees are given only vague comments on what they need to do to improve, they may well be condemned to plateau out. What they really want, we suspect, is what Sandy wants: Tell us what to do to get an A.

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

This month's offering, from Amy Donahue, head of the department of public policy at the University of Connecticut, is one of the most thoughtful we've received. Donahue recommends the National Incident Management System document from December 2008, which can be downloaded from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Web site. She writes:

"This might seem like a strange recommendation, but here's why I make it: I predict that almost every manager in every sector of society will at some point during their careers be confronted with some serious disaster - whether they find themselves leading a government agency that must respond in some way or whose workforce is affected, a nonprofit organization that wants to help, or a private company that can provide support, or even if they personally are affected by an event. This could be anything from a major storm like Katrina, which involved thousands of managers across the nation (many of whom did not anticipate being involved), or a major power outage like the Northeast recently experienced, or a willful act like we experienced in Oklahoma City or on 9/11. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) articulates the operating philosophy that our nation - from local governments to federal agencies - uses to respond when something happens. Any manager who might need to act when something goes wrong ought to understand how the system is designed to work. Currently, most managers do not understand the system, and find themselves frustrated by unmet expectations. Bottom line: It is every manager's professional responsibility to understand NIMS."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

In a conversation we had recently with former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (who is now, of course, the federal secretary of agriculture), he buttressed Amy Donahue's comments in the previous item. As Vilsack told us, "When I went to 'new governor's school,' I was sitting next to Zell Miller, former governor of Georgia. And I look at him and I say, 'What are the one or two things I should focus on? Should it be health care? Should it be jobs? Should it be education?' He looked at me and said, 'Emergency management.' I thought he didn't hear me. I said, 'No, what are the really big things - health care, education, jobs?' He said, 'Son, emergency management. I guarantee you that within six months something's going to happen in your state and if you don't handle it well, it won't make any damn difference what you do in health care or jobs or education.' "

As it happens, this was great advice. Within six months of that conversation, Vilsack was handling the aftereffects of a devastating tornado that hit Iowa.

Public-private partnerships are a pretty hot topic, right? But we challenge you to get four of your colleagues in a room and see if all four would define them in the same way. We bet they won't. Some folks talk about public-private partnerships exclusively in the context of big infrastructure projects. Others find the opposite extreme and think of them as any case in which a private firm is paid from public dollars - down to the local company that's hired to mow the lawn around city hall. In between are a host of things, including agreements such as long-term contracts for IT service.

We're not looking to set a fixed definition. Just suggesting that when you enter a conversation about public-private partnerships, you make sure everybody is actually talking about the same thing.

You might have guessed that we spend a huge amount of time scanning scores of newspapers, blogs, Web sites, periodicals and so on, in order to keep up on what's happening in government management. Add to that the work done by our editorial assistant, Heather Kleba, and it comes to a stunning pile of stuff coming over our electronic transom.

Based on that work, we've come to a conclusion - and it's not good news for government managers. The men and women who cover state and local news never really loved management-related topics, preferring to focus on politics. But now, the state and local news hole is almost entirely devoted to stories about fiscal affairs and budgets. Management is an even less covered topic than ever. And while we understand the reasons for this phenomena, we think it's bad news for those of you who toil in the vineyards of policy and management.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba