The Problem with Acronyms

Plus: Managers Reading List, training for waving a flag, and more
July 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Last month we mentioned an unintentionally funny government acronym (FIER -- pronounced, as best we could tell, as either "fire" or "fear") for a department of human resources. We're grateful to Cindy Osga, internal control officer of the state of Michigan, for bringing another presumably unintentional acronym to our attention.

She wrote, "In a previous job I conducted an audit of LUST (Leaking Underground Storage Tanks). We concluded it may be best not to use the acronym in the audit report."

Manager's Reading List. We were startled at the number of people who responded to our request, also from last month's B&G Report, for recommendations of good books for people in the public sector to read. Not only were there many good ideas, they continue to flow in. So we decided to feature one or two recommendations (or sets of recommendations) a month, until we run out. Meanwhile, please keep those suggestions coming.

Our first installment this month begins with Michael Jacobson, performance management director in King County, Washington. Suggestions from his e-mail:

Team of Rivals : "amazing 'feel like you are there' moments with Lincoln and his Cabinet"

Listening to the Public : "Barbara Cohn Berman's take on how to engage with the public around performance issues"

Moneyball : "not new but a great read, even for non-baseball people about how changing a single metric can alter an entire organization"

Tipping Point : "one of the easiest reads on the role of social marketing"

Marketing in the Public Sector : "brings private sector expertise on getting ideas adopted by the public and profiles public sector stories."

Susan Rash, assistant city manager in Rosenberg, Texas, meanwhile, strongly suggested people read Launching a Leadership Revolution , by Orrin Woodward and Chris Brady. She writes that it's "a must read leadership training book that takes you through the five levels of leadership, one by one, with practical examples and challenging exercises. You will be amazed at the training in this book, if you will read it thoroughly and apply the principles contained in it."

What kind of credentials do you need to wave a flag? We're not talking about the American flag, but the brightly colored ones that direct traffic around construction sites. In Massachusetts, for example, this is a job for the police. Other states (such as nearby Maine) use much cheaper, non-police personnel for the same task. According to a piece in the Boston Globe by David G. Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, safety stats don't show any differences in the outcomes.

There must be dozens of jobs in state and local government in which the same phenomenon is in play. We understand that politics -- and the influence of unions -- can make sensible discussions about such issues tricky. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be taking place.

Web Site of the Month: We've become regular visitors to the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau for its "Tap the Power" feature that puts together bibliographies on important topics. A few that were issued in 2008 focus on identify theft, election administration, higher education in Wisconsin and climate change. We recommend that you take a look.

We remember that "estimating" was a part of fourth-grade math. It was tricky for some of our classmates to get the idea that with this process you didn't need to be exactly right. You just needed to be close. We liked this concept a whole lot.

Occasionally, though, governmental estimates are so wildly divergent from one another that we wonder whether somebody somewhere ought to go back to the fourth grade.

Case in point: Florida's Department of Education has projected a need for $314 million to fund facilities for class size reduction. But the state's well respected Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability says the following in its 2008-2009 Business Plan: "We determined that this projection was substantially overstated and estimated that the funding need was significantly less and could be as low as $.5 million. The Legislature did not provide funding for facilities for class size reduction this year."

We don't know who is right here. And maybe there's some giant mismatch in the way the two groups were thinking about class size reduction. But one way or another, these outer-space differentials are one of the reasons we think people lose faith in government.

There's an understandable desire to make complicated topics short and sweet. The B&G Report itself is purposefully designed to feature brief items, because we know how busy our readers are. But we recently got a really interesting note from Governing contributor Will Wilson who challenged the push to cut, cut and cut some more. He pointed to South Carolina's "Citizen Centric Report," an effort to present financial data to citizens who don't have the time or know-how to parse the several-hundred-page comprehensive annual financial report. We've praised such reports in the past, and think they have enormous value.

But Wilson has an interesting point to make. He mentions the inevitable shortcomings of any four-page report, adding, "South Carolina produces a much more useful 18-page "Popular Annual Financial Report" that includes good info on debt, capital spending, and operating indicators, as well as a more helpful breakdown of the operating budget, spending information, and some functional components/agencies of government (corrections, transportation, lottery, etc). Is 18 pages really too much for citizens to read?"

We've written a few times about our sense of growing frustration with severe limits on travel for government employees. Recently, we came across a clip indicating that Maine was limiting attendance to the annual National Conference of State Legislatures meeting to just two people, despite the obvious benefits that this meeting has for legislators interested in learning from other states' experiences.

But now we've found a case where a state restriction can actually cost the state more, rather than less. It comes from a late May document about the Western Intergovernmental Audit Forum to be held in Lake Tahoe, which is on the border between Nevada and California. Some Californians who want to attend apparently face restrictions in traveling out of state. The hotel charge for them is $132 a night (to stay on the California side of the lake). But folks who are allowed to stay in Nevada will only pay $89 a night.

Do we need to comment further?

It's unsettling when people who have no role in government are extremely critical of the expertise of public-sector employees. But it's even worse when the men and women who are part of the system have the same sentiments.

Deloitte Research surveyed 200 government leaders in 28 countries about the role of financial executives in government and found lots of gaps in skills and training, particularly when it comes to providing strategic direction and other higher-level skills. In fact, close to half of those surveyed "believe their organizations do not possess adequate financial management capabilities." That's not all. Some 63 percent said program managers "do not understand the total cost of their services," and more than half said their organizations don't thoroughly understand the link between investments in programs and the outcomes produced by programs.

William D. Eggers, the author of the report, told us that the U.S. survey results -- from local, state and federal officials -- roughly paralleled the global results. His recent Management Insights column on the shortcomings of financial management appeared on in early July. You can find the full Deloitte report here.

Performance-measurement advocates repeat the mantra, "What gets measured, gets managed." It's a good line. But here's another one from Jonathan Becher, who is a senior VP in SAP's governance, risk and compliance group: "Not everything that can be counted, counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Yet another important comment about performance measurement comes from Harry Hatry, director of the Public Management Program at the Urban Institute and one of the most-respected voices in the community of people who care about ways to help government work better. He has been a major developer of tools and research in performance measurement, and he's concerned that the frustrations and difficulties of cross-governmental comparisons might deter people from embarking on them. "If you're going to make comparisons, they're always going to be differences and distinctions in measurement," he says. "You just have to accept the fact that it's better to be roughly right than precisely ignorant."

While cities and states search for big management reforms that will save lots of money and improve services, sometimes it's worth looking at the little stuff. For example, the New York City Police Department is evaluating whether to to rethink its shelving system for storing weapons. Why? An audit conducted by the city comptroller discovered that "nearly one out of three handguns and rifles that had been turned into the police could not be immediately accounted for in a Manhattan property clerk's office," according to the New York Times .

The comptroller told the Times that an initial search "determined that 70 of the 94 weapons had been returned to their owners or destroyed, while 24 'miraculously' turned up on shelves from where they had previously been missing after several attempts to find them."

This is hardly the end of the world -- they found all the guns, after all. But if the city can't keep good track of lethal weaponry, you've got to wonder what's happening with stationery supplies, computer terminals and petty cash.

A recent article in the New Atlantis quoted Lord Chesterfield as saying, "There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time."

This flies in the face of the way so-called multi-taskers do their business. (Who would have guessed that multi-tasking was bothering Chesterfield hundreds of years ago?) To be sure, we're sometimes in awe of people who can engage in a conference call while simultaneously writing e-mails and eating lunch. But we're increasingly dubious about whether we should be in awe or just a mite suspicious. Have you been to a meeting lately where nearly everyone in the room periodically taps away at their BlackBerries? Maybe they didn't need to be at the meeting in the first place, but if they did, shouldn't they actually be at the meeting, as opposed to simply occupying the same room as others? We can't help but wonder whether we're giving up something valuable in exchange for the alleged efficiencies to be gained from multi-tasking.

Looking for cool ways to share information? You might want to take a look at the California's Best Practices Wiki, a self-described way "to improve the effectiveness of California State government by sharing proven best practices. It enables state agencies to learn about, adapt and apply tools and processes that have worked in public programs. The Best Practices Center builds on the willingness of state employees to share with each other by providing an online resource that supports collaboration, speeds communication, and reduces 'silos.'"

(By the way, our thanks to NCSL's blog, the Thicket, for leading us to this site.)

In Minnesota, no employee can make more than the governor. What's more, many pay levels aren't allowed to rise above a pre-set percentage of the governor's income. Of course, in hard times, it's politically unrealistic for the governor to ask for a raise. And the current governor, Tim Pawlenty, seems happy with his $120,303. But that's the same remuneration the governor got 10 years ago. Result, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press : There are a lot of highly skilled, valuable employees who make less -- each year -- than they could get from local government or the private sector. And that doesn't sound like a good thing.

A while back, we asked you for governmental jargon that you found particularly jarring. The other day, the Associated Press carried a story about England's Local Government Association, made up of hundreds of district, town and county councils in England and Wales. The group "sent out a list of 100 'non-words' that it said officials should avoid if they want to be understood." Included on the list: "Synergies," "sustainable communities," "stakeholders" or "customers" (for citizens), "empowerment," and "revenue stream" (for income).

According to the AP story, the association was moved to action when it heard that one town council had urged its staff to stop talking about brainstorming -- but instead to substitute the words "thought showers."

The use of "customers" as an alternative for citizens or taxpayers is a particularly tricky one. Consider these excerpts form a blog entry written by Larry Grant, a consultant at Public Strategies Group, and posted on PSG's new Government Reinventors blog:

As with just about any question concerning reinvention we begin with "who's the customer?" That is, who is the primary intended beneficiary of any product or service -- or regulatory function? The idea of "customer" makes many public servants uncomfortable -- particularly when regulatory or other kinds of "control" functions are concerned. I find that this discomfort goes away when we point out that the "customer" is not always the person or group that you interact with regularly -- like in a retail transaction.

It doesn't make sense to call the recipient of a speeding ticket the customer of the "arresting" officer. This is because the primary intended beneficiary of the speeding ticket is not the speeder, it is the "public." This is to say that it is in the public interest that we regulate traffic. The officer in this case delivers an obligation (in the form of a ticket) to the speeder.

This is quite common in government agencies. Sometimes the agency is delivering a service (such as welfare benefits), and sometime the agency is delivering an obligation (ensuring eligibility for the benefit). A reinventor makes a strong distinction between service functions and compliance functions, because their customers are very different. Service functions are generally delivering services (or benefits) directly to their customers. Compliance functions generally deliver obligations to the people they regularly deal with -- we call them "compliers" so they are not confused with "customers."

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba