Stimulating Conversation on Parks and Golf Courses

Plus: Adaptability and flexibility, California's new stimulus watchdog, and more
April 9, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Back in February, the B&G Report raised the issue of stimulus dollars going to various quality-of-life-oriented construction and maintenance projects in cities and counties -- specifically parks and municipal golf courses. As regular readers know, this conjured up a remarkable amount of commentary from readers. We've compiled some of the more interesting e-mails, which you can read here.

Adaptability and flexibility. Those were the two top qualities that Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy looks for in a job candidate, she told the New York Times recently. Here's our question for you, our readers. Assuming job candidates have the basic qualifications, what are the two qualities you value most in a candidate for a public sector job?

Email us and let us know!

One of the pre-requisites, we think, for watching over a state's use of stimulus money is that the people in charge be willing to speak out -- despite whose plans they might derail. With that in mind, we believe California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made a wise decision to appoint Los Angeles Controller Laura Chick to a newly created inspector general post, in charge of overseeing the tens of billions of dollars of stimulus money heading to the state. We interviewed Chick a couple of years ago for the B&G Report and found her to be one of the most outspoken public officials we've ever met. With her name in the news, we thought you might enjoy seeing that interview again.

Here's another really smart move from the beleaguered state of California. It has created a newly filled position: geospatial information officer. It's long been clear to us that digital mapping can be an incredible tool for all levels of government. It permits officials to share data across a whole variety of enterprises -- health, public safety, emergency preparedness, environmental protection and so on -- in order to help them coordinate efforts, even in a state as big as California. And creating a high-level position responsible for this effort feels like a sincere move in the right direction.

The officeholder is Michael Byrne, a well-known authority in the field. We wish him the best of luck. Note to the state legislature: Give Mr. Byrne the resources he needs. Assuming he does his job well, you'll get real financial savings from the efficiencies this work makes possible.

Good news and bad news in Maryland: The state deserves credit for making substantial efforts to verify performance measurement data used in its state Comprehensive Plan. This exercise is critical, we think, to persuading legislators that they can trust the measures they're being asked to use. The Office of Legislative Audits is now examining all 62 measures and has started with the 13 that involve public safety and safer neighborhoods.

The bad news? The results of the first audit were sobering. Of the 13 measures, data for two were found to be just plain inaccurate, and five others were problematic. While many of the issues were relatively small, some were more dramatic. For example, when auditors tested 35 of the 1,237 cases representing offenders who had satisfactorily completed substance abuse treatment in 2007, they found that there was no documentation for 24 of them. In fact, 16 of the 24 "had not been enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program" in the first place. That makes it kind of tough to come up with documentation.

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

Jim Moore, director of government programs at the Rensselaerville Institute, suggests Goal Analysis: How to Clarify Your Goals So You Can Actually Achieve Them, by Bob Mager. Writes Moore, "I strongly recommend it for people who find it hard to define outcomes. It's great for clarifying the search for concrete ways to measure outcomes and dispel fuzzy thinking."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

Incentives "may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes them worse in the long run." That comment comes from Barry Schwartz, author of "The Paradox of Choice" and a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. We picked up it from a "Ted Talks" podcast, an online compilation of often-fascinating lectures delivered at the annual TED Conference.

Schwartz believes that excessive use of incentives "de-moralizes" activities. People wind up doing them for the incentive, he says, instead of doing them because they're good. A case in point:

"If you have one reason for doing something and I give you a second reason for doing the same thing, it seems only logical that two reasons are better than one and you're more likely to do it. Right? Well, not always. Sometimes two reasons to do the same thing seem to compete with one another instead of complementing and they make people less likely to do it.

"I'll just give you one example.... In Switzerland about 15 years ago, they were trying to decide where to site nuclear waste dumps. There was going to be a national referendum and some psychologist went around and polled citizens who were very well informed and they said, 'Would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community?' Astonishingly, 50 percent of the citizens said yes. They knew (or they thought) it was dangerous; they thought it would reduce their property values. But it had to go somewhere and they had responsibilities as citizens. The psychologist asked other people a slightly different question. They said, 'If we paid you six weeks salary, every year, would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community?'... Instead of 50 percent saying yes, 25 percent said yes."

Innovation-Blocking Behaviors are the subject of a satirical piece that you can find on YouTube. The video was made by a NASA employee and focuses on that federal agency, but there are a lot of good messages there for state and local government as well. Also, it's funny. Watch and see what you think.

Our Journalist of the Month Award goes to Jim Nichols of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for his excellent piece about the potential benefits of plans for a taxpayer-funded medical mart and convention center that, according to Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. (MMPI)President Christopher Kennedy would turn Cleveland into "a Disney World for doctors."

We haven't done independent reporting about this project, but past experience tells us that the grandiose expectations for giant projects like this one are often exaggerated. We don't think this is necessarily purposeful, but rather a function of letting your logic follow your dreams. Nichols goes into a fair amount of detail that sheds doubt on the prospects for this particular deal, including comparisons to other cities that have sought the same kind of business as Cleveland's facility would need.

As the article explains, "Indianapolis, the city that...local convention planners hold up as a convention-city model, covets those meetings, too. But the Indiana Convention Center's calendar for next year slates no medical meetings even close to the size that MMPI Senior Vice President Mark Falanga aims for."

If this interests you, you can read Nichols' piece as well as Brewed Fresh Daily, a local blog that charts out the differences between the convention development in Cleveland and in some other cities.

Pell City, Alabama, recently passed a resolution that "allows the involvement of council members in the hiring process of city employees," according to the Alabama Daily Home . The idea, according to the paper, is to help promote council participation in the day-to-day operations of the city. This worries us a bit. Doesn't it confuse the roles of government between the people who make the laws and the people who manage the community? And wasn't it very much this kind of activity that led to the creation of a civil service system?

At a time when nobody has any real idea of what's going to happen to the economy tomorrow, at least we can try to learn a bit from history. With that in mind, we recommend a succinct nine-page history lesson, written by Ron Snell, state services director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. It's called "State Finance in the Great Depression," and it shows how the Depression in the 1930s thoroughly transformed state spending and revenues. A few of our favorite facts from the paper:

o In 1927, 30 percent of states' general revenue came from motor fuel and vehicle licensing taxes and 36 percent of their spending was for highway construction.

o That same year, two-thirds of all state and local government revenues came from property taxes. (Property tax assessments fell dramatically from 1929 to 1936.)

o Mississippi was the first state to enact a modern general sales tax -- in 1930. By 1940, 21 states had done so.

o Twenty states created cigarette taxes in the 1930s.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba