The Face of Government

Plus: State boards in limbo, the power of picking up the phone, and more
August 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

We were having a bite to eat with some old friends recently, and one casually remarked that "state government is just so awful." She said this in a way usually reserved for comments like, "Nice day, isn't it?"

It hadn't occurred to her that, after years of covering state government, we wouldn't immediately agree. Our reaction was just the opposite, and we pressed her to go on.

It wasn't long before we realized that our friend, who is very active in election-reform issues, mostly comes into significant contact with state government at public hearings where she and her husband have given testimony. These can be crowded, bureaucratic and formal affairs. Moreover, it can be nearly impossible to tell whether your testimony ever actually had any impact.

It seems to us that public hearings, like motor-vehicle offices, are one of the main faces of state government -- and every effort should be made to inspire engaged citizens, not to make them angry.

There are some other faces of government that could use a little nip and tuck or maybe a full-out face-lift. Consider the dozens of boards, commissions and committees that are set up in states and cities and then wind up in a kind of hazy limbo.

The legislative auditor in West Virginia recently looked at the entities of that kind that are attached to the Department of Administration. Many meet regularly and appear to be in good shape, but among the others are:

o The Boundary Commission. It has three members, two of whom are people whose terms have expired, while the third seat is just vacant. In any case, the commission hasn't met in three years.

o The Governor's Mansion Advisory Committee. It hasn't met in the last three years, either. And no meeting is scheduled. (Maybe the mansion just hasn't needed any advice).

o The State Personnel Advisory Council. All 11 positions on the council are vacant.

Pick up the phone! Here's another thought in our series of pieces about proper and improper use of e-mail to get work done. Why do you think so many people are intent on making appointments by e-mail?

In our experience (and we've found universal agreement when we ask others), this often results in a great deal of time spent accomplishing something very simple. We write you and ask if you'd like to talk. You write back and say, "Yes, why don't we set a date?" We write back and say, "Fine, how about the following two dates?" You write back and say, "No, neither of those dates work, but how about the next week?" We write back to say, "We're out of town that week, do you have any other thoughts?" And on and on.

Turns out, more often than not, that we could actually have spoken that day.

Lots of people were excited a few years ago when the National Governors Association proclaimed that all 50 of its members had decided to standardize their formulas for reporting graduation rates. Historically, this has been a Wild West kind of affair, with most states adopting their own approaches. That makes it really difficult to benchmark or establish best practices.

Well, it's time to re-cork the champagne, at least for a while.

According to Education Week, "Only 16 states currently calculate and publicly report a graduation rate consistent with the formula agreed to in 2005 in the NGA's Graduation Counts Compact. That's just three more states than reported their graduation rates according to that formula in 2006, when the last progress report was released. Despite their governors' signatures, three states -- Hawaii, Illinois, and North Dakota -- have no plans to adopt the graduation-calculation standard, according to the report, 'Implementing Graduation Counts: State Progress to Date, 2008.' "

It's always tempting to look at information about the successes, failures and foibles of the federal government and try to extrapolate those findings to the states, cities and counties. We rarely do that because there are simply so many differences between the work in Washington, D.C., and the work in Albany, Los Angeles or Franklin County. But when the Government Accountability Office came out with a report in late July looking at the use of performance measures at the federal level, the findings were so strong that we thought they were worth passing along.

Here's the scoop: A much larger percentage of federal managers have performance measures than a decade ago. But although they've got the measures, there's been little improvement in using them. In 1997, 31.8 percent of federal managers had outcome measures available to a "great or very great extent." By 2007, 48.9 percent did. But six out of eight areas of potential "use" showed no improvement at all.

The GAO recommends that the next administration adopt a more "crosscutting" approach to the use of performance measurement, improve the relevance to lawmakers and "build agency confidence in assessments for use in decision making" -- suggestions that all make sense at the state and local level as well.

Another interesting finding: Contract management was the management activity with the smallest reported use of performance measures, even though there has been a concerted effort to improve contract management at the federal level. In 2007, only 41 percent of federal managers reported using performance information to a great or very great extent in putting together or managing contracts.

For the full report, "Lessons Learned for the Next Administration on Using Performance Information to Improve Results," click here.

The B&G Journalist of the Month Award goes to the Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik ("The Numbers Guy") for a piece about the way the Chinese government is measuring -- and reporting about -- air quality. Many news articles, both now and prior to the Olympics, have totaled up the number of "blue sky days," when the air pollution index is below 100. We all know what blue sky days are, right? They're the days when you yearn to make a picnic lunch and sit beneath a tree, accompanied by a book of verse, or maybe a jug of wine.

Turns out the phrase means something very different in China.

Bialik explains that this standard for success is far less ambitious that you'd find elsewhere. Most East Coast cities in the United States would have index levels around 10 or 20. As Kenneth A. Rahn, professor emeritus of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told the Journal, "In U.S. terms, that's a ridiculously high concentration."

We bring this up because there's a very important lesson for users of performance measures everywhere: Don't trust success, as measured on any scale, unless you understand what the scale is really about.

We think that Bialik does a terrific job. If you're interested, take a look at his blog.

No surprise that many state and local governments are actively trying to get their employees to drive less. This shows how much creativity an $80 tank of gas can engender among city, county and state managers. A few examples:

o In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski's Commuter Challenge encourages the state's 8,500 employees to carpool, bike, walk and use public transit for summer. The challenge will end just before Labor Day. Agencies that meet the governor's goal of "emissions saved" will be recognized.

o Rhode Island is setting up a committee on state employee transportation. The committee's goal is to develop a plan that gives state employees incentives to reduce vehicle miles driven to work. The group will consider the implementation of carpool, telecommuting, guaranteed-ride-home, bike-to-work and walk-to-work programs.

o In Alabama, according to the Birmingham Business Journal, "Gov. Bob Riley is encouraging state employees to help combat high fuel prices by carpooling. Riley is touting the state's 'Commute with Company' program that helps state employees find potential ride partners through a secure Web site maintained by the State Personnel Department."

Some readers may think we're preoccupied with overtime costs. And maybe we are. We've covered the topic a few times in the last months. But as we scour the press for interesting nuggets to bring to readers of the B&G Report (with the assistance of our intrepid research assistant, Heather Kleba), there are few topics that seem to come up more frequently. We don't have any good solutions, but would love to hear from places that do.

Two quick examples of the problem from the past couple of weeks come from Bridgeport, Conn., and San Francisco. In Bridgeport (population 139,000) police officers put in for some $9 million in overtime last year. To put that in perspective, the city's year-end deficit of $19 million was big enough to press the mayor to look for 10 to 20 percent spending cuts in every department.

On the other coast, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that "in the first six months of this year, 184 San Francisco city employees made at least $30,000 apiece in overtime. ... Many of the employees who have earned the most in overtime so far this year work public safety, public health and public transportation jobs. From January to June, the city spent $87 million in overtime, with $24 million going to [Municipal Transportation Agency] workers and $19 million to police. The city increased its annual overtime spending from about $105 million in 2000 to $151 million in fiscal year 2007."

Dress for success? In late 2007, we reported that the Washington State Patrol was named the "Best Dressed State Law Enforcement Agency" by the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors. At the time, we wrote, "We have no real evidence to prove this, but we've always felt that when government employees take pride in the way they're required to look in their jobs, it's likely they'll be more inclined to live up to that image in their work."

Well, now we see that the Washington State Patrol has been named the best law enforcement agency in the United States by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. What's the cause and what's the effect? It's hard to say. But the relationship between the two is clear and worth noting, especially at a time when "casual Fridays" seem to be increasingly spreading to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Our dirty little secret is that we've both become addicted to playing Wii, the Nintendo video game that lets you simulate tennis, golf, bowling and so on. The only problem is that we've gotten so involved in the tennis game that we've both experienced hurt wrists, shoulders and elbows. (We know this is hard to believe, but if you've played the game, you'll understand).

A doctor friend informs us that Wii-related injuries are finding their way into the medical literature. Why do we bring this up in the B&G Report? It's an advisory to Worker's Compensation Offices. If we worked for one, before starting to provide benefits for any worker, we'd ask if he or she had a Wii set in the house.

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

Julie Labor, of the Business Solutions Center of Excellence for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, suggests "Why Employees Don't Do What They're Supposed To and What to Do About It" by Ferdinand F. Fournies. Labor writes, "What I like most about this book is that it is not gimmicky. It takes a remarkably objective approach to correcting performance problems. It works whether you're in the public or private sector."

Larry Davenport, senior vice president for finance and administration for Hampton Roads Transit in Virginia, adds, "One of the most helpful finance publications I've ever read (and I do a lot of reading) is more of a pamphlet than a book. 'Understanding Costs' is one of the Business Fundamentals publications from Harvard Business School Publishing. It is a collection of plainly written and very enlightening articles about how to develop and apply cost information for business decisions. It should be read by everyone working in government or private enterprise, finance professional or not. It will even make you a more informed elected official, if that's your role."

More Manager's Reading List suggestions

A good idea that's gaining traction is the use of 2-1-1 lines, United Way's service to provide health and information concerning basic human services. It is not an emergency hotline, but a valuable reference tool to help citizens utilize the services they need or volunteer to provide help themselves. Congratulations to Missouri for being the 21st state to implement 2-1-1 coverage statewide. For some tips, if your state is considering following suit, see our April 2007 B&G Report item on the topic.

We thought we were finished -- at least for a while -- with items about oddball acronyms in government. But then we got a document from Tony Longo, deputy director in charge of the Performance Measurement Group at the Mayor's Office of Operations in New York City. We feel obliged to pass it along. One caveat, writes Longo: "I don't want to give the idea I spend a lot of time on stuff like this (and I did it a number of years ago)." The piece is titled, "Too Many STAR-Struck Agency Programs," and it includes the following:

o STAR -- School Tax Relief (NY State/NYC Department of Finance)

o STARS -- Summons Tracking and Account Receivable System (Department of Finance)

o NYSTAR -- New York State Office of Science Technology and Research (supplies grant-funding to CUNY)

o STARS -- Statistical Tracking Analysis and Reporting System (Department of Probation)

o STARS -- Substance Abuse Tracking and Reporting System (Human Resources Administration)

o STAR -- Safe and Timely Adoptions and Reunifications (Administration for Children's Services)

Longo's solution? "A coordinated city/state initiative to reduce, revise and replace duplicative program names." He'd call it the Statewide Acronym Registry. Or STAR.

Since most of you also subscribe to Governing magazine, it will be no surprise that Peter Harkness recently stepped down as editor and publisher and editor, thanks to a company requirements that he do so at age 65. We won't get sappy here. Peter already knows how we feel about him.

But we just couldn't let the occasion pass without recognizing that without Peter there would be no B&G Report. In fact, without Peter, we don't know what our lives would be like today. It was his faith in us that led to virtually all our work in cities and states, regardless of the context. So, if you enjoy what you read here or in our Governing column, or any place else you see our names related to state and local government, you can thank Peter.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba