The Trials of Transparency, The Trouble with Assuming, and a New Government Wiki
Plus: Four-day school weeks and more management news
We really felt sorry for Christopher Hoffman, spokesman for the public school system in New Haven, Conn. He's currently featured in a YouTube clip in which he attempts to explain to a diligent reporter from the New Haven Independent why the press wasn't invited to a meeting. The session apparently concerned the possibility of turning over a New Haven school to a for-profit company.
Hoffman had a rough time explaining why this wasn't a totally transparent meeting. But without commenting directly on this situation, we're wondering whether you, B&G readers, have any thoughts about situations in which transparency is not in the best interest of taxpayers.
If so, let us know via e-mail!
It's easy to accept cost-benefit analyses at face value. (And that kind of analysis is certainly superior to the "Whatever Will Get Me the Most Votes" school of decision-making.)
Still, before taking any cost-benefit analysis at face value, it's critical to examine the assumptions. Take, for example, a 2008 study in San Diego that was used to justify building a new city hall.
The San Diego County Grand Jury (which investigates and evaluates the actions of local governments) recently came out with a report questioning some of the assumptions from the original study. The grand jury noted, for example, that the city used 2008 leasing figures to justify construction of a new building, even though leasing costs have gone down significantly since 2008. It also points out that the report uses the maximum rehabilitation cost instead of the minimum cost to ensure public and employee health and safety when comparing the cost of rehabilitating the old building and starting from scratch.
Lesson: Caveat lector. (Let the reader beware.)
The Government and Social Media Wiki is a website that, in its own words, "aims to help elected officials and their staffs, the media, and the public at large track which offices use the different forms of Social Media." This is a world that's constantly changing, so the information can fall out of date from day to day. But we know it's been recently updated. And it's very cool — and potentially useful.
Four-day school weeks are one money-saving option for cash-starved school districts. In fact, scores of school districts in a number of states have made this move, according to a new report by the Education Commission of the States. The report doesn't go into the impact of a four-day school week on actual educational outcomes, which would certainly be an important concern.
But what interested us was the actual size of the savings that this change could produce. At first thought, many people might assume the savings would be 20 percent, since the schools will be closed one out of every five days. But that doesn't account for things like overhead costs and teacher pay and benefits, which wouldn't necessarily go down.
The report comes up with some interesting data about the actual savings that could be and have been realized. It states: "Because of the unique characteristics of school districts, it is impossible to produce a cost savings estimate applicable to all schools. However, using national finance data supported by information from individual districts, ECS has determined that the average district could produce a maximum savings of 5.43 percent of its total budget by moving to a four-day week. In addition, it was found that districts that moved to a four-day week have experienced actual savings of only between 0.4 percent and 2.5 percent [emphasis theirs]. While these savings might seem small, they have often proved large enough for districts to make the move and reduce their school week by one day."
Teacher evaluations seem like the most contentious issue we've ever seen in the broad world of measuring performance. We've been following the topic for a while and have noticed that states seem to be thinking about a basket of measures, rather than relying on any one single one (such as test scores). For example, Maryland is creating a spectrum of measures that leaders there hope will be both fair and useful to educational policymakers. "Maryland has committed to multiple measures," says Mary L. Gable, assistant state superintendent in the Division of Academic Policy of the Maryland State Department of Education. "If you link it to just one assessment there is a concern."
If you're interested in this topic, you might want to read our most recent column for the IBM Center on the Business of Government.
Cause and effect, we've learned, is intensely hard to determine in making managerial decisions. Which is why we were drawn to this quote from the Noahpinion blog: "The fact that there's a bunch of sick people in the doctor's office doesn't mean that doctors make you sick."
Citizen involvement can be hard to come by. So we were immediately intrigued when we first heard about YouTube's "virtual town hall platform." Here's the deal, according to a description on the website: "YouTube Town Hall is an online platform for members of Congress to debate and discuss the most important issues of the day. Visitors can select an issue, watch two short videos expressing competing ideas, and then support the one they agree with most. To help people focus on the merits of the idea and not the party of the speaker, the speaker's party isn't revealed until after a user decides which video to support. The most supported videos will be highlighted on the YouTube Town Hall Leaderboard."
We've played with this for a bit, and it feels like it has potential. We're not aware of any states or cities doing anything similar. We think they should.
A month ago we asked B&G readers how frequently they were frustrated by technology on the job. We got back a nice stack of electronic answers, a bundle of which we've excerpted here. Take a look, but please don't be disappointed by our lack of even pseudo-scientific findings.
Louisiana and Illinois are each giving up more than 4 percent of their sales tax revenues because they're not collecting taxes on e-commerce transactions, according to a new study by the Southern Legislative Conference of the Council of State Governments. For another 16 states, it's 3 percent or higher — including California, which is forgoing some $1.7 billion in 2011 alone. The gaps are likely to continue growing, as total e-commerce sales continue to rise; they increased by nearly 15 percent between 2009 and 2010.
As many of you probably know, states have been constrained from collecting these revenues as a result of a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that held that online retailers can only be required to collect sales taxes if they have a physical presence in the state of the purchasing customer.
It's not like the states are unaware of this pot of uncollected cash. A number have been working with the Streamlined Sales Tax Commission for some time to set the stage for changing the status quo. Several states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Colorado, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island, have passed legislation trying to get at these dollars.
Our point? If we were running a state in these impossibly tough fiscal times, this would be the first tax-related issue we'd have our managers tackle.
Over the past few months, we've run a number of items taking issue with the way the press has covered government. We're hearing from a number of people with similar concerns. The piece in question right now appeared on a blog authored by syndicated columnist, author, and Fox News Channel contributor Michelle Malkin. The post was also published on the Fox Nation blog.
Malkin relied on a recent GAO report to critique the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board's actions with regard to the stimulus package. Ed Pound, Director of Communications for the board, shared with us a number of problems he had with the post. Here are a few, in his words:
- "The column states that the 'RATs' could have 'exercised their own common sense to stop such plundering in the name of job creation themselves.' In fact, the Recovery Board does not give out the stimulus money and has no involvement whatsoever in determining which states, institutions or businesses receive contracts, grants or loans."
- "The column describes the Recovery Board as 'the Obama administration's stimulus oversight board.' It is, in fact, an independent agency created by Congress to oversee the expenditure of Recovery Act funds and guard against fraud, waste and abuse."
- "The column states that the Recovery Board 'dodged responsibility by sheepishly pointing out' that federal law does not prohibit delinquent taxpayers from receiving federal contracts or grants. In fact, the GAO report notes that 'federal law does not prohibit a contractor with unpaid federal taxes from receiving contracts from the federal government.' The column neglects to mention that information on unpaid taxes is confidential, and no individual or agency, including Congress, can obtain this information from the IRS. We would love to have access to the information so that we could stop this egregious break of faith with the taxpaying public."