Those Two Little Management Words

Plus: The possible demise of a performance institution, management lessons from a weight-loss program, and more
May 21, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

What are the top two qualities for a public sector job candidate? B&G readers offered up a fascinating list, which you can find here.

The Oregon Progress Board is on the chopping block, we've just learned. In our view, demolishing this entity would be a terrible blow for government management in Oregon. We fully understand how much all the states need to cut budgets. But this appears to be a case where a state may try to lose fiscal body weight by putting its brain on a diet. We've mentioned the Progress Board's vastly improved benchmarks reporting recently, noting how useful it is in tracking what government and its partners accomplish and where efforts fall short. We hope that the state House and Senate, which both recently expressed support for the Progress Board, will not follow Legislative Fiscal Office recommendations to axe it from the Department of Administrative Services budget.

A few years back, we both decided to lose weight. We selected a program that involves assigning point values to every food or drink. (We won't name the program, but let's just say it's for people who are "watchers" of their "weight.")

Anyway, on this system, an apple is worth one point, a two-egg omelette is six points and a McDonald's double-quarter pounder with cheese is 17 points. Based on gender, height and weight, participants are given an ideal number of points to consume in a day. Then you get another bundle of points that are usable any time during the week. Every week you weigh in and see how much progress you've made.

We took to this like ducks to water, and over the course of a year, we lost a combined 90 pounds. We kept the weight off for a good while. But the scales crept back up and now we're back on the program.

We do not bring this up because we think you're interested in our Adventures in Diet Land, but because we've become convinced that this is one of the best examples we've ever witnessed first-hand of the power of performance measures to create positive results. It also emphasizes the importance of using measures to manage, because with regular weigh-ins, you're constantly adjusting and readjusting your food consumption. Think of the food consumed as inputs and the change in weight as the outcome. If you stop measuring either of those on a regular basis, the whole thing falls apart -- which is precisely what happened to us.

Earlier this month, we asked readers about their experiences with incentives -- whether or not they worked. As usual, many of our readers came through with interesting and thoughtful answers.

Here's one of our favorite responses, from George K. Jones, city manager of Drumright, Oklahoma:

"A few years back, I was employed by a city that had a chronic sick leave abuse problem. Our best minds conceived an idea of an attendance bonus. Basically, it offered a cash reward to employees who used no sick leave days and a slightly lesser award for using less than 16 hours of sick leave in a year. In addition, an added benefit was a cash-out of a percentage of accumulated sick leave upon retirement. It was not offered for any separation, only retirement.

"Unfortunately, we found that the same abusers continued to abuse and the ones who were dependable were still dependable. We determined that it was more a matter of habit than conscientiousness. So, I would classify that as a situation of dismal failure. We spend some money on those who needed no additional incentive. However, I did benefit when I took early retirement from that City and received a final paycheck of almost $12,000, less taxes withheld of course."

In a couple of weeks, we'll feature a few more responses. E-mail us before then if you have something you'd like to share.

Fast-growing cities are often forced into understanding the vital need for solid strategic planning. Otherwise, infrastructure, schools, emergency response and other systems and services simply won't be there when they're needed. But in the wild and wooly fiscal era we're now confronting, it becomes clear that shrinking cities have much the same need.

Consider Flint, Michigan. "Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life," Dan Kildee, the Genesee County, Michigan, treasurer told the New York Times . "We need to control it instead of letting it control us."

So, like other cities in Michigan and elsewhere, Flint is pursuing a strategy for "planned shrinkage." For example, according to the Times, "Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods. The population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval."

Not a happy scenario. But it seems a lot better to prepare for the future than to try to hope it away.

Incidentally, if you're interested in Kildee's approach, you can read Christopher Swope's January 2008 Governing story, The Man Who Owns Flint.

Disability claims are a major expense for cities, counties and states. So when we came across this story from the private sector, we thought it was worth passing along.

According to BusinessWeek, Quebec-based Industrial Alliance had long had an efficient means for processing disability claims. That didn't stop the new director, Leslie McMillan, from trying to improve the system further by introducing a bit of emphathy into the process. As the article explains, "she instructed the 10 claims analysts in her division to call the people seeking disability benefits and interview them for a half-hour to learn more about them."

Within a year, spending on independent medical evaluations dropped by 80 percent, and the average time to settle a claim dropped from eight to four weeks. The personal touch, it seems, can be enormously cost-effective.

We really like this quote from Dr. Dirk Brockman, leader of the epidemic-modeling team at Northwestern University: "Averages don't tell you very much.... It's like putting Bill Gates down in Ethiopia and saying the country has a pretty high average income."

It is our hope, of course, that all readers of the B&G Report are gainfully employed. But common sense dictates that at least a few of you have been victims of declining government revenues. It is with this in mind, then, that we reproduce the following, from the San Francisco Chronicle . Some questions never to ask in job interviews:

Are you going to do a background check?

Is my [medical condition] covered under your insurance?

Do you do a drug test?

When will I be eligible for a raise?

Do you have any other jobs available?

How soon can I transfer to another position?

Do you have smoking breaks?

If you hire me, can I wait until [more than three weeks from now] to start the job?

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

Irene Jackson Henry, architect manager with the design and construction division for the state of Michigan, recommends "Orbiting the Giant Hairball -- A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace" by Gordon MacKenzie. She writes, "I had the good fortune to witness a presentation by Mr. MacKenzie at the Michigan Department of Transportation's Leadership Conference some ten years ago. His talk centered on the difficulty of maintaining creativity within a rigid corporation or bureaucratic organization. The book is short, quirky, and fun, but raises insights and questions that anyone in government management should consider."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

We just got back from our son's college graduation. One observation we made, which had nothing to do with the ceremony, seemed worth sharing.

In truth, this was an observation from the male member of our little team, and it pertains to the urinals in the rest room in the theater department building at the University of North Carolina. Above each urinal was a little plaque stating that this particular kind of waterless facility saved some 40,000 gallons of fresh water per year. This seemed like an astonishing number. But the greater point is this: We both believe that such information can be a potent component for effective change. If the public gets good reasons for changes in policy, program, technology or infrastructure -- whether large or small -- the buy-in will be demonstrably greater. (And by the way, Happy Graduation, Ben!)

Here's another quote worth savoring, from Warren Buffet. It seems particularly relevant in current economic times: "You can only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out."

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba