Tweeting Your Way to Better Management

Plus: Kentucky Loses a Resource, Texas Loses Some Fireworks, And More
April 22, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Do you use Twitter? In an effort to get better at our jobs, we're taking a fling with this bit of technology to see if it's hugely helpful or another technological fad. So far, we've made good use of so-called tweets from a number of organizations like Wisconsin's Legislative Reference Bureau that have pointed us to reports and comments that are useful in a variety of ways. If you do use Twitter, follow us at @GreeneBarrett. (And while you're at it, follow @GOVERNING -- the magazine tweets new articles and questions daily.) Finally, if you're already great fans or critics of Twitter, we'd love to hear why. E-mail us with your thoughts.

The Kentucky Legislature recently eliminated the state's Long-Term Policy Research Center, in order to save a little over a half a million dollars a year. We think this is a big mistake.

For years, we've pointed people to the excellent work done by the Center as a model of useful long-term planning efforts in the states, a discipline that's demonstrably helpful in keeping governments running smoothly. As the Lexington Herald-Leader explained in its solid article about this decision, the Center "studied complicated issues -- including topics such as obesity, immigration and aging -- and suggested how Kentucky might respond. It predicted some events before they happened, like the decline of tobacco as part of the state's economy."

Based on the Herald-Leader piece, it appears that the only reason the Center was shuttered was because the state is very short on cash, and the Center wasn't deemed a necessity. Our sympathies go out to the employees of the Center, including the very knowledgeable Michael Childress, executive director since it opened in 1993. But our greater sympathies go to the people of Kentucky.

"There are fireworks just about every day in city hall as we try to get through the recession without raising taxes." That's what Carrollton, Texas, city manager Leonard Martin, wrote to us in response to a recent B&G Report item in which we mentioned that some cities were cutting things like annual fireworks displays in order to save money. We referenced a column by Jerry Newfarmer, a former city manager and founder of consulting firm Management Partners. Newfarmer argued for the importance of fireworks displays as community-builders.

Martin wrote that Carrollton had ceased its fireworks display three years ago, and despite a population of 123,000, the city received only about a dozen complaints. "We have not had any community fall-out. Now, raise taxes and you will get a real fireworks show no one would enjoy."

Want to read a lengthier piece we've put together about the topic? Click here.

From the "Counting Chickens" school of budgeting: According to an early April news report, the Vermont House "filled most of the $154 million budget gap when it passed a pared-down budget March 27. But the budget counted on the $38 million in Challenges for Change savings while the details of that package weren't to be revealed until five days later." We wonder how the legislature was able to evaluate the validity of that number.

In the past month, both of us have -- quite coincidentally -- served jury duty (not the same jury, of course). And we were each actually selected to serve on panels in a trial. And we think the magic that imbues the air between court officers and jurors in New York should be shared everywhere. At least in our experience, the officers were unflaggingly attentive, polite and reasonable. The jurors treated the officers with similar sensitivity and patience (even when waiting, say, for word back from the court about a question). This was all impressive to us, particularly in contrast to the content of dozens of responses we've been reading to a B&G Report question we posed a couple of weeks ago about the rudeness of citizens toward public officials. In a couple of weeks, we'll share some of the more provocative comments.

This quote is just about as old as we are, but we just came across it and thought it was right on target. At the time, it mostly applied to the federal government, but today it applies equally well to cities, counties and states:

"It's a terribly hard job to spend a billion dollars and get your money's worth." -- George M. Humphrey, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

1,804 ash trees. That's how many trees the town of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, cut down. Why is this important? Because it's a lovely example of the kind of savings a city can get from careful planning, based on a story we came across in the Cleveland Plain Dealer . Turns out that ash trees can carry a vicious little bug called the emerald ash borer, which invariably kills the trees once they're infected. And that ends up being quite costly. As the Plain Dealer reports, "Once a tree is diseased, it becomes a fall hazard and the price of removal skyrockets. ... One Michigan town they studied ignored the beetle and it ended up costing taxpayers $3 or $4 million to clear the dead ash."

So Shaker Heights is removing one-fifth of the ashes on each street every year over a five-year period -- whether they're healthy or not -- and replacing them with more disease-resistant trees. Other cities appear to be taking note.

Good planning. Good savings. We are, however, a little sad for the ash trees, cut down in their primes. We certainly hope we never come down with emerald ash borers...

Wisconsin's Legislative Reference Bureau has put out another of its wonderful bibliographies on topics of interest to government leaders and managers. This one is about teachers and pay-for-performance initiatives. Give it a read -- it's well worth your time.

For years, we've been arguing about the importance of strategic planning and the careful use of verifiable data. But sometimes, we think we lose sight of the power of serendipity in making important innovations in management and policy. With that in mind, we were particularly taken by this comment from the Princeton Alumni Weekly : "History shows that breakthroughs often spring not from carefully laid plans, but from mischance or even sheer, ridiculous accidents. A stovetop spill heralded vulcanized rubber; the potency of uranium was revealed when a rock was left in a drawer among photographic plates. And great research seldom follows an unswerving path. At RCA in Princeton in the 1950s, David Sarnoff exhorted his team to invent a flat television that could hang on a wall. 'There were an enormous number of failures,' says Princeton historian of science Michael Gordin -- and instead of TVs, the world got the Seiko digital watch in 1973."

OK. We'll admit it. We like to watch "Celebrity Apprentice" on television. As those of you who share our tastes in entertainment may know, one of the original contestants this season was former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He was eliminated (with, of course, the usual Donald Trump intonation, "You're fired!").

But here's what we found startling: It appeared that the former governor couldn't use computers -- or e-mail. We had assumed that pretty much all high-ranking government officials -- at least those who aren't elderly -- would have to have a good grasp of basic communications technologies these days. Maybe Blagojevich is unusual in this way. Or maybe our assumption was just wrong.