The Stimulus Dilemma: Creating Jobs vs. Boosting Productivity

Plus: The phantom toll road, red-light camera accidents, and more
December 17, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

We're stumped, and would like to be educated. We understand that one of the goals of the stimulus act has been to help preserve public sector jobs. Yet, for years now, we've been hearing state and local officials aim for productivity gains -- which we've always understood as meaning that they were able to accomplish the same amount, or more, with the same amount of employees or fewer. Is this a matter of having two goals -- both worthwhile -- that conflict? Is it just a matter of timing? (Perhaps in a recession it's better to employ more folks, no matter how productive they are). Or are there other forces at work? Or is this just a dumb question? It's our guess that there are relatively straightforward answers here -- and we turn to you for them. E-mail us with your thoughts.

Have you driven on a toll road lately? Did you even notice you were going through a toll? Throughout the nation, so-called "open road tolls" are in the vanguard. These technological marvels allow drivers who have electronic payment gadgets in their cars to simply drive on, completely unobstructed. The only problem is that there are people who just drive through, without any means for paying.

We talked to Peter Samuels, editor of TOLLROADSnews, about this phenomenon, and he filled us in. Apparently, rates of non-payment can reach between 10 and 15 percent. "Most of the non-payers are inadvertent," Samuels explained. "The feeling in the industry is that three-quarters of them just didn't read the signs or weren't paying attention. They are not bad people who are trying to get away with the toll."

So what can the states do about this? Well, the obvious thing is that they can send notices to the non-payers providing them with an easy way to pay the bill. But there's a snag. Says Samuels, "The biggest problem of all is that motor registry databases are just wrong in an amazing percentage of cases. Or they're out of date. People have moved from one state to another or have sold the car and haven't notified the motor registry people. Places with a big turnover of population have the largest percentage of obsolete databases."

More car talk. In a recent B&G Report, we lamented the notion that cameras attached to stoplights might actually be increasing accidents instead of reducing them. The speculation was that people were more inclined to stop short when the fear of the camera lens reached into their hearts.

Made sense, but here's another take, from F. Michael Taylor, city auditor of Stockton, California: "An increase in accidents at red light camera intersections in the months following camera installation is not surprising. For motorists, it can be frustrating. However, our office did an audit of red light cameras here in Stockton that showed something more. While accidents did increase after camera installation, the seriousness of the accidents and injuries at those intersections decreased. I think the community is better off with a few more fender benders if it means fewer broken necks."

Click through to read Taylor's full audit report on red-light cameras.

"Despite what you hear from many politicians, failure is always an option," write William Eggers and John O'Leary in their fine new book, "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government." This may seem pretty obvious to observers of government at all levels, but truly understanding its ramifications can help government managers enormously.

The authors go on: "Those who fall into the Overconfidence Trap dismiss those who advise caution, consider only the best-case scenario and plan with unrealistic budgets and impossible time lines. The best way to avoid the Overconfidence Trap is to take the possibility of failure seriously -- and take precautions to avoid it."

The book goes into far greater depth about this "trap," as well as six other evocatively named snares including, for example, The Silo Trap, where participants in a public undertaking fail to see the end-to-end process of reaching a result as a series of independent steps.

No question in our minds: Basing managerial decisions on solid evidence is good practice. But there's an inherent problem there. All evidence is not created equally, and it can be relatively easy to pick and choose facts from studies that support an idea that may or may not be worthwhile.

Consider, for example, taxing soda. It's a relatively common option being explored right now, when additional streams of revenue are in such demand. But when University of Alabama researchers looked at two studies reporting the effects of sugar-sweetened beverages on body weight, "less than one-third of the papers that cited the beverage studies accurately reported the overall findings, and more than two-thirds exaggerated evidence that reducing sugar-sweetened drink consumption reduced weight or obesity."

For truth in advertising, we should admit that the male half of B&G has had pretty good success losing weight by drinking less soda. But still, the lesson from the Alabama study is powerful. Researchers call it the "white-hat" bias, a tendency to misuse studies in order to further ends that are believed to be in the public good.

Why don't study groups often lead to reform in government? Here's a clue from the Associated Press last week: "Property taxes on business inventory and equipment are the biggest obstacle to attracting new companies to West Virginia, members of a tax research group said Wednesday. But they stopped short of recommending any changes."

No winners in the blame game. A couple of weeks ago, we asked B&G readers if there were many cases of trying to shift guilt for mistakes in their offices. While we can hardly claim that the responses we got were any kind of scientific sampling, we can tell you that they were pretty depressing.

Respondents were reticent to be quoted by name, but we heard, for example, that in one small Texas community, "The blame game (AKA Fault Shifting) ... became so prevalent in our offices that we instituted a requirement that all complaints against fellow employees are required to be in writing, sworn to under oath and a copy is provided to the employee that is the subject of the complaint."

Then there was a former program manager from Metro Atlanta who wrote, "As a division manager I learned that it was in my self-interest to point a finger at someone else because, as an at-will employee, my acknowledgment of problems made me a target for those above me in the hierarchy."

Sometimes, apparently, the fingers get pointed upward. Jay Gsell, county manager of Genesee County, New York, wrote to say that blame gets pushed up the ladder "particularly when someone doesn't want to be the bearer of bad news (i.e. refusing service, releasing an employee or telling someone they can't buy a piece of equipment...). In our case it becomes 'downtown's fault,' or the 'higher-ups said no.' or . ... 'Mr. Scrooge (the county manager) doesn't like you and you have to go eat worms.' "

Non-profits get lots of money from state and local governments. And like all manner of contractors, including those who are in it for a profit, there's often too little oversight provided.

The latest piece of evidence comes from an audit that was released last month from the Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly. A few excerpts about the $694 million distributed to non-profits in fiscal year 2007-08: "Although grants to non-profits are covered by administrative rules and statutes that were intended to assure accountability for non-profit grants, findings from this review indicate persistent gaps that stand in the way of this goal. Statewide reporting requirements do not require sufficient documentation, do not adequately address program performance outcomes, fail to produce timely reporting, and lack sufficient enforcement."

We don't have solid evidence for this, but we'll bet that North Carolina is no worse in this regard than a number of other states and cities.

When people don't trust government, it makes it even more difficult to create good policies and manage them. A state wants a rainy day fund? Must be a political move to raise taxes, say some. A city wants to use technology to better track its citizens' social welfare needs? Here comes Big Brother, say others.

The non-partisan research group Policy Matters Ohio has come out with a report encouraging leaders to try to change the negative perceptions of government as a means toward greater progress on behalf of the public. Particularly interesting, we thought, was a section that indicated that there are three dominant negative images of government that distort thinking. They are, according to Policy Matters:

  • The Blurry Bureaucratic Blob -- wasteful and inefficient, distinctions between what is public and what is private (and why) are fuzzy at best
  • Government as Vending Machine -- a "consumer stance" narrows the view of government to a "what's in it for me, can't we get it cheaper" perspective. This narrow transactional analysis does not support the civic approach needed to address public issues.
  • Government as political theater -- mere partisan squabbling, a spectator sport that has nothing to do with me.

Finally, here's something that makes our flesh crawl, and it's deeply connected to the previous item from Policy Matters Ohio. When people ask us what we do for a living, we give a lot of different answers. But generally we mention that we're really trying -- in a variety of ways -- to help government run better.

Want to guess the most common response we hear to that? (You really don't, but we'll tell you anyway.) People just laugh.


Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan