The Coffee-Stain Index

Plus: Higher-than-expected turnover, the importance of old-fashioned written materials, and more
September 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Please help us write our speech. About a month from now, we're giving a speech at the Governing Managing Performance conference in New York City titled, "The Seven Secrets of Good Public Management." We don't want to bore our audience with commonplace maxims ("long term planning is good"). Instead, we want to hit on critical elements of good management that are easily missed -- like, for example, the use of the "coffee-stain index" to measure the value of a strategic plan by the physical evidence that it's actually been used. The cumulative knowledge of our B&G readers is so potent that we wanted to see what thoughts you might have. Please share. We'll give you credit in the speech, if you'd like.

One reason we're optimistic about getting lots of good answers to the question above was the astonishing response we received to questions we posed last month: Why are turnover rates in state and local government higher than they should be? Why do people leave government work?

The answers were absolutely riveting -- and they keep coming in. Lots of folks mentioned money -- but that really didn't seem like the biggest reason. Next month, we're going to put together a substantive piece to give you a solid idea of the range and breadth of the responses we got.

But just to keep you interested, here are short excerpts from a small sampling:

o "Where else would you have your potential new boss campaign to get elected to 'turn government around and get the workers to do better?'"

o "The perception (often correct) is that it is nearly impossible to get things moving, to innovate, to do things differently."

o "Increased internal restriction in government made (and is making) it increasingly hard to do anything. People choose to work for government to make a difference, not (despite claims to the contrary) for security. But among control agencies and political leaders, there is an increasing intolerance of failure, to the point that it gets easier (and certainly safer) to do nothing, rather than to try something and move forward."

o "Very few governmental entities have any system for rewarding those that are good employees. The majority has no mechanism to give bonuses, even if that employee saved them thousands of dollars, and many times it's pretty darned hard to even get an 'atta-boy.'"

o "Politicians and politics"

o "Simply the frustration of being ignored. As less than a Department Director, there is no contact with a City or County council, Mayor or even the City manager. Good ideas generated by staff are not considered until a Consultant or other 'Important' person makes the recommendation."

In a day when new electronic miracles are commonplace, it feels like reliance on old-fashioned written materials are the dodo bird of communications. But that's not necessarily so. A Canadian study found that self-help materials, delivered to problem drinkers, resulted in a 10 percent drop in binge drinking when the recipients were compared with a control group six months later. "Many heavy drinkers mistakenly believe that their behavior is more common than it actually is," says Dr. Cameron Wild, lead author of the study and a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. "By seeing how their alcohol use compares to actual population norms, this can motivate heavy drinkers to re-evaluate their use of alcohol."

Our journalist of the month award goes to Christopher Wills of the Chicago Sun-Times, who recently noted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's ultimate good news/bad news decision. According to Wills, the governor cut half the money requested for a bridge-repair project, while approving a request for the other half of the money. The cut was applied to the half of the request that emanated from the Senate, while the half requested by the House was approved.

As Wills writes, "Blagojevich needs House Republican support if his vetoes are going to survive there. In the Senate, however, President Emil Jones has promised to block any override attempt, so Republican votes don't come into play." It seems to us that, in the wake of the Minnesota tragedy, it should be clear to everyone that infrastructure has become too important for politics to trump management.

"The state-federal partnership is as troubled as it has been in many years," warns Marcia Howard in her generally excellent State Policy Reports. This is worthy of note for anyone examining state budgets that seem to rely on heightened federal dollars. Among Howard's cautionary notes: "Any appropriations bills Congress manages to adopt are likely to be vetoed (except the bill covering veterans, which the president has said he will not veto).... Most state grant programs initially will be funded though a continuing resolution at FY 2007 funding levels.... SCHIP and NCLB reauthorizations are likely to slip into 2008. Current authorizations will be extended for both...and the solvency problems of the highway trust fund will be put off as long as possible."

We can't count the number of times we've heard that one of the major obstacles to economic development in cities and states is the time-consuming process of filling out all the appropriate regulatory forms. Until very recently, Salt Lake City certainly fell into that boat. But now it's cut a deal with corporate giant Accela to coordinate the process into something it's calling "one-stop counter service." The idea is to create a vastly simplified process that will permit applications to be accepted at one office, using one centralized database.

That should be quite a relief for Utah businesses. According to an Accela press release, "seven different city departments require plan reviews before issuing building permits: Building Services, Business Licensing, Planning and Zoning, Fire, Engineering, Public Utilities and Transportation. Because these agencies are housed in different locations, customers have heretofore been required to visit several different locations to obtain permits. In addition, the City has utilized nine different databases and application procedures to issue permits."

Nobody ever seems to let us get away with missing a deadline. Or at least that's the way it feels. But when it comes time for states to get their comprehensive annual financial reports out, it sometimes looks like little more than a hit or miss affair. You should care about this because the information in CAFRs is pretty important for managers and policy makers, and the longer it takes for them to get it, the longer they're in the dark when it comes to decision making. The National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers keeps track of the timeliness of CAFRs for 49 states (New Mexico doesn't seem to produce one), and the latest findings were fascinating. A few tidbits:

o 21 took longer to complete the FY 06 CAFR than the FY 05 CAFR; 20 completed the FY 06 CAFR more quickly than the FY 05 CAFR; and the rest took the same amount of time for both years.

o For FY 06, the range of completion times was 112 days (New York) to 325 days (Arizona)

o The states showing the most improvement were Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Rhode Island. Most of these states were catching up after experiencing major delays in the issuances of their CAFRs in one or more previous years.

o The states that took at least a month more to get their CAFRs out this year than last were Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan and South Dakota.

o Four governments succeeded in completing their FY 06 CAFRs in fewer than five months: New York (112 days), the District of Columbia (118 days), Utah (136 days) and South Carolina (144 days).

o Eight states required 250 days or more to complete their FY 06 CAFRs: Arizona (325 days), Connecticut (299 days), South Dakota (297 days), California (271 days), New Hampshire and Ohio (266 days each), Hawaii (258 days) and Maine (250 days).

o Over the course of the five years studied, just two states (Rhode Island and South Carolina) consistently decreased the number of days required to prepare their CAFRs.

o New Hampshire consistently increased the number of days required to prepare its CAFRs from FY 02 through FY 06.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is often one of our first stops when we're shopping for good information about complicated topics. And we've been particularly pleased and impressed by Comptroller General David M. Walker's focus on management -- not just at the federal level, but for states and localities as well. So, it pleases us to congratulate the GAO for a really strong redesign of its Web site, which makes it a lot easier to find all the good stuff the office creates. Take a look.

It's a curious paradox that when you ask people to tell you how things are going for their street, neighborhood, city or county they tend to come up with far different answers than when they're asked to make the same observations about streets, neighborhoods, cities and counties generally. This phenomenon struck us in a recent survey done by the National Association of Counties and the National Center for the Study of Counties.

About 12 percent of county officials who responded, for example, thought that maintaining county infrastructure was the most important problem facing their county. Only five percent thought this was true for counties in general. Similarly, nine percent cited jobs and the economy as the biggest pitfall for their county; less than half that thought this was true for others. And three times as many people indicated that crime and drugs were problems for their county than thought they were for the rest.

Only in two areas, did the survey reveal a more negative impression about counties generally than the represented counties. Some 21 percent thought unfunded mandates were the biggest problem for counties generally, while only seven percent thought this was true for their own. And some 39 percent thought revenue and taxes were the biggest problem for most counties; 30 percent thought this was true for theirs.

We've spent a good part of our professional lives in the business of comparing and evaluating cities, counties and states. As we're in the midst of a handful of projects (including the Government Performance Project) that try to do just that, we felt like sharing one of our greatest frustrations. The fact is that whether you rate or rank governments in comparison to one another, there are always a handful that have made improvements in absolute terms, but look like they haven't progressed at all -- or have even fallen behind -- relative to others. As we think about this, we're reminded of a comment Michael Childress, of the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center, made to us some months back. "We run harder just to stay in place," he said. "Educational attainment, has increased, for example, but we appear to be staying in place relative to other states.", a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is a truly wonderful Web site -- particularly if you're tired of the plethora of misinformation that finds its way into the public's consciousness. To take a look, click here.

We were really intrigued by a chart we saw that showed the vast differences in volunteer retention among the 50 states, ranging from a high of 76.4 percent in Minnesota to a low of 47.2 percent in Mississippi. It seemed to us like there must be some pretty solid managerial tools that can be used to get those numbers closer to the Minnesota range, so we called on Robert Grimm, director of research and policy development for the Corporation for National and Community Service a couple of weeks ago. He pointed to the fact that one out of three people who volunteer in a year don't volunteer at all the next year. "We have a leaky bucket in volunteering," he said. "About 21 million people who volunteered in 2005 didn't volunteer in 2006."

What's to be done? Grimm had a few ideas:

o Volunteers have to be challenged to use their skills effectively; it's just silly to use a trained social worker to stuff envelopes.

o Regular opportunities to volunteer - rather than sporadic ones - tend to keep people interested and engaged.

o Organizations that screen and match their volunteers, provide recognition for their volunteers and have some kind of individual on staff to manage the volunteers do best at retaining these helpful people.

o Volunteers will thrive if they report to someone who demonstrates that they're important to the organization. Many organizations give volunteers to a lower-level employee, which leads them to believe they're not seen as an important resource.

o It can be very helpful to offer some training or professional development for the volunteers.

"Government management systems generally penalize poor performance more than they reward good performance. Thus it becomes more important to avoid failure than to achieve success." We just came across this un-sourced quote online. We think it's right on the money in many cities, counties and states. Wonder if anyone knows who said it first.

Requiring public sector employees to live in the same region in which they work has always seemed like a questionable management technique. But there may be another means to the same end that utilizes more of a carrot than a stick. According to the Modesto Bee in California, city employees who work in Ripon, California, can borrow up to $83,000, based on the median sale price, for a down payment on a house in the city.

According to the Bee, "They have no interest or payments for the first 10 years, with $1,000 forgiven for each of those years of employment with the city. After 10 years, employees start to repay the loan -- minus $10,000." One result: 90 percent of the police force is participating, and the department hasn't had any officers leave -- aside from retirements -- in the six-plus years since the program was launched.

You'll never be lonely if you get e-mails from the Kaiser Family Foundation. As far as we're concerned, this organization provides the best, most complete, most authoritative information about health care in America. We wanted to point you, right now, to a particularly useful tool it has developed: an interactive Medicaid benefits online database. As Kaiser explains, "Using this tool, Medicaid benefits can be compared across the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the US Territories or by specific service.... The online tool contains Medicaid benefits survey data from 2003, 2004 and 2006 with information about benefits covered, limits, co-payments and reimbursement. The tool includes an interactive map, an expandable list of benefits, and the ability to compare data across the three survey periods." To see it, click here.

States and cities have focused an awful lot of attention on drunken driving over the years. And that's certainly a good thing. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, all states have now lowered the legal blood alcohol concentration limit from .10 to .08 percent for adults, and all states have passed Zero Tolerance laws which prohibit drivers under 21 from having any measurable amount of alcohol in their blood system. But according to an article in New York Car and Travel, a publication of the American Automobile Association, this laudable work may be missing out on something pretty important: drunk walkers.

"According to the most recent statistics," the article explains, "34 percent of pedestrians age 16 or older killed in traffic collisions had a blood-alcohol concentration at or above .08, the legal limit for drivers in New York State." Ever hear of an officer checking the blood alcohol of strollers? It doesn't sound very practical. But we can't help but wonder whether some smart managers - armed with this kind of information - might figure out a way to save some lives by addressing this problem.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba