Tracking Return-on-Investment for Higher Ed

Plus: Public-Private Partnerships, The End of the Rubber Room, And More
May 6, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

It seems to us that states need a reasonable way to evaluate return on investment for public universities. There simply has to be an approach to compare one university to another within a state or between states in order to find policies and practices that get better bang for the buck. Unfortunately, even after digging a little bit into the subject, we're not entirely clear as to how to measure either return or investment for universities. We know it's a tricky topic. So we're turning to you: Any ideas as to the best ways to measure return on investment for institutions of higher learning? E-mail us with any information. We'd appreciate referrals to papers that have already been written as well as your comments.

Have you ever noticed that when the discussion turns to private-public partnerships, people tend to talk about the enormous advantages to cities and states? How often do you hear people talking about why they're a good deal for the private-sector partners -- including investment bankers? Not so often, in our experience. We think it's an important question to ask, especially when any government considers entering into one of these deals. We feel pretty confident that when the private-sector partners are smiling too broadly, there might be a reason for the public-sector side to do some deep thinking.

Update on rubber rooms. A couple of years ago, we were appalled to discover that New York City teachers placed on probation were told to report to a so-called "rubber room" each day until the complaint lodged against them had been resolved. Apparently, this state of limbo could go on for years. It could even be a fair bit of time before the teachers knew why, exactly, they were on probation in the first place. Meanwhile, the teachers were paid.

The good news is that these rubber rooms are now a thing of the past. Instead, and far more sensibly, teachers on probation will be "assigned to administrative work or nonclassroom duties in their schools while their cases are pending," according to the New York Times. That sure sounds like a better plan to us.

This may have been obvious to everybody else, but it just came clear to us: The tax credits that states offer to encourage individual types of economic activity can sometimes leave the state with a set of priorities that aren't necessarily in line with what the government or public really wants. In Missouri, for example, Gov. Jay Nixon is pressuring the legislature to clamp down on these credits for very much that reason, according to a piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

According to Nixon, tax credits have shot up by some 86 percent over the last decade. He is particularly concerned about historic preservation and low-income housing credits. (Missouri apparently spends more than any other state on historic preservation credits). The governor's point: If the state forgoes income for historic preservation, for example, then it has less money to spend on education. And he doesn't believe that's what taxpayers really want.

According to the Post-Dispatch, the governor faces an uphill fight in constricting tax credits, because each credit "has strong backers. For example, as the governor spoke, insurance agents ... gathered on the Capitol lawn for their annual luncheon and lobby day. At the top of their list: opposing Nixon's tax credit legislation."

Our favorite quote this month comes from Tim Kastelle and John Steen's Innovation Leadership Network blog: "A lot of people say that knowledge management is like herding cats, but I say that it's really like herding butterflies. You can't make butterflies go anywhere -- if you want them around, you have to create a garden that attracts them."

A power ploy. How to get citizens to save energy? Here's one idea that we discovered in an excellent post in the New Republic's The Vine blog, written by assistant editor Bradford Plumer:

"For some time now, a few electric utilities have been experimenting with a clever ploy to get their customers to save energy. The idea is simple: The power company just sends people reports showing how much electricity they're using compared with their neighbors. After Sacramento's municipal utility tried this last year, energy use dropped 2.8 percent. The reports really do seem to motivate people to switch off their lights, install CFLs, shut down their computers at night, or even take bigger steps like insulating their windows. Anything to keep up with the neighbors."

Plumer points to research that shows this kind of incentive doesn't work on everyone, unfortunately. In fact, some folks seem to increase their energy consumption when presented with this information.

To tweet or not to tweet? A couple of weeks ago we asked readers to tell us about their experiences with Twitter. We'll be dong a follow-up on that topic in a while -- after we've gotten some more personal experience with the microblogging platform.

Meanwhile, the feedback we've received ranged from very positive to very negative. One correspondent e-mailed us saying Twitter "wastes too much time. Too much garbage."

At the other end of the spectrum, Brian Francis, assistant to the county manager in Mecklenburg County, N.C., says he aggressively uses Twitter as a communications tool. Here are some of the ways he tells us that he does so:

"1. I'm responsible for monitoring state and federal legislative affairs. Therefore, I follow a number of reporters on Twitter that help keep me informed of what is going on in Washington and Raleigh. Using TweetDeck, I've created specific lists relevant to these areas so that I can read a filtered stream to stay involved.

"2. County staff, commissioners and local reporters have begun live tweeting Board of County Commissioner meetings...

"3. We are in the midst of severe proposed budget cuts. Twitter has been a great resource for monitoring public feeling about these cuts and providing factual information about the situation that we are facing.

"4. On my account, I mix social messages with county advocacy. It's my opinion that most of my followers don't care a whole lot about county government. Most follow me for other reasons. However, they are there when I want to get a message out that is relevant to county operations."

To read us on Twitter, follow us @Greenebarrett.

We suspect that there's general agreement that historically, Virginia has been one of the best managed states in the country. California, on the other hand ... well, it's not been winning any management trophies lately.

So it struck us as very interesting that these two states are very much alike in terms of the number of legislators with college diplomas. According to a piece by Morgan Cullen in the NCSL blog The Thicket, Virginia and California are the two states with the highest percentages of legislators with at least a bachelor's degree, at 89 percent and 87 percent respectively.

What lessons come from this? Maybe that good management isn't just a matter of degrees.

Is transparency always a positive thing? Consider the public release of 911 calls. In the May issue of State Legislatures magazine, a brief article points out that Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wyoming have "passed laws preventing the public release of 911 calls." And legislators in other states are thinking about doing the same. The argument against making these calls part of the public record is that the fear of a call being played on the nightly news might stop some folks from calling 911 in the first place. Others argue that it's important to keep the calls public in order to "expose botched calls and vindicate operators accused of mishandling a call..." Seems to us like there's a perfectly good middle ground to be found here.

The Public Civility Corner. The deluge of e-mails we received in response to our recent question about rudeness in the public arena has inspired us to create a regular feature for a few months (or more, if we don't run out of steam). We're calling it the "Public Civility Corner," and it will feature examples of instances in which discourse surrounding governments has either been extremely level and productive -- or the opposite. We'll also be offering up commentary as to why things go in either direction. Please send us any thoughts or examples you may have.

To get things rolling in the meantime, here's an excerpt from an e-mail we got from a manager of a mid-sized Mid-Atlantic county:

"Working in local government often exposes us to angry people; it is just part of the job. I'm mostly okay with being a target, but the behavior at a recent public hearing was disheartening and I was just watching from the sidelines. A large crowd, mostly from the same community, attended a public hearing on a growth plan to oppose proposed zoning changes. If there were people in the crowd who came looking for information or greater understanding they kept very quiet. Those that talked were, at best, talking with minds already made up and, at worst, were nasty, rude and abusive. The meeting facilitator was the target of personal attacks including accusations that he was being paid off by some unidentified outsider. One speaker, when finished, threw her folder of notes and photos at the facilitator. If people still got tarred and feathered I would have feared for his safety. I left that meeting wondering if public service was worth it."