States' Self-Promotion, Mobile Phone Math, and Explaining Tax Expenditures

Plus: Sounding off on disagreeing with the boss, and more management news
July 21, 2011 AT 4:25 PM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Washington is the first state to defund its statewide tourism office and provide no state money to promote itself to travelers, according to The New York Times. Does this seem sensible to you? How much benefit do you think your state, city, county or town gets out of self-promoting?

E-mail us with your thoughts.

Mobile phones have increasingly become standard office equipment for city and state employees. They also have a great potential for wasting money, according to an audit by Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel. Her audit found, for example, that the city had given out some 563 cell phones that had zero usage for at least two or three months. The cost: $46,000 a month. May not sound like much, but we'll bet that'd pay for a fair number of child-care positions the city had to cut in its last budget.

Her office also discovered that there was too little oversight of usage, which meant that the phone plans the city selected weren't necessarily the best and unnecessary costs cropped up.

Other cities, take note!

"If policymakers, the media, and the general public lack information about tax expenditures, they cannot fully participate in decisions about how to allocate state resources." That's according to an excellent new report by Michael Leachman, Dylan Grundman and Nicholas Johnson for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "In fact," the report goes on, "in many states the policy debate encompasses little more than half of the state's total expenditures because expenditures made through the tax code are not part of the conversation."

The CBPP report, which we recommend reading, goes into interesting detail about the kinds of information states should be sharing.

Whether or not you're comfortable disagreeing with your boss, we thought that the wide variety of comments we received about this topic would be of interest to you. They were startling in their frankness — and in some cases, the anger in their words. We've put together excerpts from a dozen of the many comments, and here they are.

Making traffic signs more reflective can save lives. That much is pretty clear. So back about eight years ago, Congress passed legislation requiring that cities upgrade their signs to make them reflect light more acutely. They were given until 2015 to meet the new standards for traffic signs and until 2018 for street signs. An unfunded mandate? To be sure. But on the other hand, it does feel like Congress provided an awful lot of time for cities or states to figure out a way to make the changes affordably. There were some pretty posh economic years between 2003 and 2007, but it appears that a number of cities didn't take that opportunity to comply. And now, we're beginning to see articles popping up indicating that cities are starting the process of complying.

In fact, one state lawmaker, Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, is trying to roll back the federal bill, saying that, "The unfunded mandate put in place by the new standards of the Federal Highway Administration is an undue burden on states when they can least afford it."

Has Texas' rainy day fund somehow evaporated without anyone noticing? That's certainly the message of a recent piece in the San Antonio Express-News. Here's the short version. The state has aimed for a rainy day fund equal to 5 percent of its budget, or a little under $9 billion. That sure sounds good, but the Express-News points out that, "When the 83rd Legislature comes to the Capitol in 2013 ... it will begin with at least a $4.8 billion shortfall. How will the Legislature find the money to bridge the gap? By tapping the rainy day fund, just as it did this session to patch a $3.1 billion hole in the budget."

What's more, reports the newspaper, "The Legislature is underestimating the state's expected share of Medicaid costs by $4.8 billion to make the budget balance." Assuming the paper has gotten all this right, it sure sounds like the rainy day fund is kind of a chimera.

"When the result of a meeting is to schedule more meetings, it usually signals trouble." — Management author Kevin J. Murphy.

Wanna kill innovation? Dr. John Sullivan is a well-known professor of management at San Francisco University. He's come up with a list of the Top 25 "That Will Never Work" Excuses, and we thought we'd share his top five:

  1. "We tried that once already and it didn't work (or I heard that it failed at XYZ)."
  2. "We have always done it the current way and it has worked fine."
  3. "I read somewhere that the program has lots of problems (or I can think of ____ good reasons why that can never work)."
  4. "We might get sued if we did that (although no data is presented)."
  5. "Budgets are tight and we simply can't afford it (or I suggest we postpone it until next year when we have more resources)."

We worry that the alarming reports about layoffs and furloughs in the public sector may be dissuading young people from seeking a career in government. Goodness knows that states, cities and counties need as many of the best and brightest as they can get. So we thought it was worthwhile pointing out that the unemployment rate for June 2011 in government was 5.8 percent. That's way up from a year ago, to be sure. But it's still not so bad compared with the unemployment rate for the nation as a whole, which clocks in at 9.3 percent.

While we're talking about unemployment, it's important to note how much the rate varies from state to state. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board advises that performance measures be disaggregated where possible — and we think this is central to making them useful and used. In the case of unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there's a huge range. Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota and others are between 6 and 7percent. Meanwhile, California, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada and more are over 10 percent. These figures are current as of May. If you want the most recent stats, wait until Friday, July 22 after 10:00 a.m. (ET), and the BLS will have released its latest state by state breakdown.