The Buck Stops Where?

Plus: The jargon divide, even more questionable stimulus spending, and more
December 3, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

When someone receives criticism in your office, do they often try to place the blame on others? This can, it turns out, be a genuinely infectious reaction, according to a paper from the USC Marshall School of Business and Stanford University. "When we see others protecting their egos, we become defensive too," said one of the study's authors. "We then try to protect our own self-image by blaming others for our mistakes, which may feel good in the moment."

In the long run, the study's authors maintain, this kind of behavior can be pretty damaging for the entire organization. It seems to us that this is hardly an insoluble problem. Who hasn't encountered a teacher or a coach who simply refused to hear this kind of passing the buck? Managers may be able to stop the blame game simply by refusing to listen. We're curious, though, about how common fault-shifting is in the public sector. Any thoughts? E-mail us and let us know.

We were on the phone the other day with a prominent Southern state legislator. We were talking about things like cost-benefit analysis and results-informed budgeting. And he sounded kind of ticked off. He didn't care about all that ivory tower stuff, he told us. He just wanted to know what things cost and what good they did. Actually, we thought that was exactly what we were talking about in the first place. Lesson learned: Jargon not only has the potential to confuse people, it can even stand in the way of forward motion.

Like most of you, we suspect, we've been interested in the various reports about inaccuracies in the data involved in spending the stimulus package. But the following statement from the Nashua Telegraph deserves some kind of prize for peculiarities in a database: Reported the paper, "More than $85,000 worth of New Hampshire stimulus money went to Michigan State University ... but there's no description of how the money will be spent. About 25 New Hampshire stimulus awards were granted to out-of-state contractors or agencies. Those include a Maine architectural firm, construction companies in Ohio and Alaska, and an engineering firm in Nebraska."

As in other cities, Los Angeles has installed cameras at a number of intersections, in order to efficiently catch motorists who plow through red lights. This always seemed pretty sensible to us. For one thing, it seems like the ultimate "sin" tax. Commit the sin of going through a light, and you pay up. Moreover, we assumed, it would make city streets safer.

Turns out that the second assumption may have been in error. According to a piece by David Goldstein, an investigative reporter for KCBS in Los Angeles, "We looked at every accident at every red light camera intersection for six months of data before the cameras were installed and six months after. The final figures? Twenty of the 32 intersections show accidents up after the cameras were installed! Three remained the same and only nine intersections showed accidents decreasing."

One theory about this phenomenon suggests that folks now may be more inclined to slam on the brakes when they suddenly become aware of a light about to turn from yellow to red -- getting rear-ended when they do.

Pretty much every large private-sector enterprise we know of anticipates that a newly-hired executive will take a while to understand the business well and to begin contributing. But what about state legislators? A really interesting piece by Brian Weberg on the National Conference of State Legislature's blog, The Thicket, sheds some light on the matter: "We expect our new government leaders to produce results starting on their first day on the job. Three months to get up to speed? Forget about it."

Weberg cites a study that indicates that in the private sector, "72 percent of survey respondents reported that internal candidates hired into executive roles need more than three months to get up to speed and at least one-fourth need six months." He goes on: "I'm not aware of any legislatures that offer their new leaders or staff directors a formal orientation to the job (but I bet many chief clerks do something like an orientation on procedure and presiding) and mentoring is used, if sometimes informally, in some legislatures. Are these efforts any more effective than reported in the study for private sector leaders? I hope so."

We're confident that money isn't the only solution to the troubles that beset education in America. There are a bundle of non-financial reasons why one school district comes up with better outcomes than another with similar demographics. That said, a new report from the Rockefeller Institute, on education-related spending patterns in the states, caught our eye. No surprise that some states spend a whole lot more than others. But here's the kicker: When the researchers at Rockefeller divided the states into quartiles, it turned out that the gap between high- and low-spending states is increasing. According to Rockefeller's calculations, in 2000 the gap was $1,825. By 2007, it had expanded to $2,585 per pupil.

On the face of it, that just can't be good.

One other interesting note. It turns out that the stimulus dollars are only going to make that gap greater. According to the report, "The high-spending group stands to receive $822 per pupil [on average] -- $34 more per pupil than the low-spending group. ... To give a sense of the extremes, Delaware -- a high-spending state with high fiscal capacity and relatively low child poverty -- could receive $902 per pupil, whereas Arkansas -- a low-spending, low-fiscal-capacity state with one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation -- is slated to receive just $762 per pupil."

Regular readers of the B&G Report will know that we've long been concerned about the potential pitfalls that states, counties and cities face when dealing with professional and technical contracts. This topic doesn't seem to be on the front burner in many places these days, but we continue to think it's important. So we wanted to point you to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library's new resource, "Professional/Technical Contracts". According to the library, "It lists all of the materials we have received over the years on professional/technical contracts. There are links to materials that are available on the Web, including several older reports scanned by the Library. This list won't answer any questions, but will hopefully lead researchers to the information they need."

Once again, we're grateful to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library for its continued great work.

As long as we're on the subject, we wanted to share a note we got from Tom Sadowski, former chief accountant of Missouri, in response to an item about public-private partnerships we wrote a little while back. Tom is unquestionably our most prolific correspondent -- and we appreciate his words. His comments on these partnerships:

"Are other ways of doing business better or is it just that the failures are less spectacular or more easily hidden? With big money going to one party there likely are more than a few happy to look for failure. My bet is that the failures almost always come down to one thing -- a failure of project management. Of course, this assumes the project was properly scoped in terms of outcomes and was based on proven technology and methodology. If you are the first to do something, you should bite it off in chunks and not link even medium risk pieces together because the more links you have the more likely the failure. Also, keep in mind you have at least three players in government -- program folks (aka users), IT and politicians -- a volatile combination in the best of circumstances."

We really do understand what it's like for a state or a city to be in stinging fiscal pain. These days, just a quick glance at revenue and expenditure figures tells an alarming story for many states, counties and cities. But we do raise our eyebrows when we see cutbacks being made in agencies, boards or commissions that were designed to save money in the first place. This comes to mind in light of a recent Associated Press report:

"A watchdog group that was created to review Connecticut state government contracts in the aftermath of scandals in former Gov. John Rowland's administration has not met this year because of the state's budget problems. The State Contracting Standards Board is supposed to review, monitor and audit state agency purchasing.

"Gov. M. Jodi Rell created the board in 2005 and it met until December 2008. A state law that took effect last January established a more powerful board that hasn't met yet. The Hartford Business Journal and WTIC-AM report that the startup of the new board was delayed because of the state's budget deficit, and Rell has yet to appoint an executive director and a chairman. Rell's office says those appointments could be made in the next few weeks."

Our questions: Doesn't Connecticut, of all places, need oversight here? And beyond halting the kind of extreme issues that landed the former governor behind bars, don't controls over contracts help ensure the state isn't susceptible to all kinds of foibles in its purchasing?

Blunting the axe: According to a piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , that city has laid off far fewer workers than were anticipated when the budget passed. Only nine employees have lost their jobs, compared to the 114 that were predicted. The city apparently took a number of steps aimed at keeping the layoffs to a minimum, including this one mentioned in the article: "Workers whose jobs were eliminated received first priority when applying for other jobs in the city."

We don't know how many other cities counties or states have done something similar -- it's our guess that a number have. But for any entities out there confronting the need to reduce personnel, this seems like a perfectly sensible way to ease the pain a bit. Of course it's important that the remaining employee have the capacity to do the new job well. But where that's the case, experience with the entity involved and a knowledge of the systems used seem like real pluses to us.

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan