What Do Public Managers Want?

Plus: saving on Medicaid, the problem with building consensus, and more
April 23, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

What are the two foremost traits that public-sector managers look for in new employees? We asked that question two weeks ago, and we were delighted with the number and variety of responses. No surprise: Different jobs called out for different characteristics. Take this example from Mark Nicolini, budget director of Milwaukee, whose second recommendation makes particularly good sense for budget offices right now.

Nicolini says he's interested in candidates who show:

(1) "Initiative, the ability to be a self-starter, i.e., identify problems that are worth solving, taking the lead on policy development -- don't wait for the job to come to them.

(2) "Ability to communicate 'bad news' and recommendations for change in an honest, diplomatic, yet forthright way. (we're a central Budget Office)"

We'll be publishing a list of a dozen or so recommendations in the next B&G Report. If you have any to add, e-mail us and let us know.

Every state would like to save money on Medicaid. Could they do so by contracting with companies -- paid on contingency -- to ferret out Medicaid overpayments to providers? That sure sounds attractive. But a recent report from Florida's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability sheds some light on why this option hasn't been more aggressively pursued. For one thing, when you find overpayments, you find underpayments too. That tends to reduce the amount that's actually recovered. An appeals process whittles the total down further.

Perhap the biggest obstacle to generating state enthusiasm is the dim likelihood that the savings actually wind up back in state hands. According to the OPPAGA analysis, the federal government would likely get back 55.4 percent of the money collected (the Medicaid matching amount in Florida), and then the vendor could get as much as 25 percent of the rest as its contingency fee, leaving the state with only $0.196 on each dollar collected. A March 19 presentation on the topic is available online.

You know the old saying, "There's no I in team"? Well, according to a new study by Jessica Mesmer-Magnus of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, that may not always be a good thing. Her article, published in The Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests that teams function better when they're told to come up with the correct or best solution rather than a consensual solution that everyone can agree upon.

We've often wondered whether some teams spend so much time talking that they wind up missing the best idea, in favor of the notion that has the fewest detractors. "There's a separation in what teams actually do and what they should do in order to be effective," says Mesmer-Magnus.

We really like the free daily e-newsletters from Very Short List . Here's one we found particularly fascinating that we wanted to share:

"This May, New York City will close off two of its busiest blocks to traffic. But can you really ease a city's traffic congestion by closing down key roads? Scientists such as the Santa Fe Institute's Michael Gastner say yes.

"According to a recent Scientific American article about Gastner and other scientists who study traffic patterns, closing down especially busy thoroughfares can circumvent Braess's paradox -- which holds that the most efficient route from A to B can create congestion by attracting too much traffic. Everyone wants the fastest route, which then becomes the slowest. Remove that route entirely, and traffic is far more evenly distributed among remaining ones and runs more smoothly. Cities in Korea and Japan have already solved traffic problems by closing down certain streets, but Broadway -- which zings diagonally through Manhattan's grid -- may be a defining test case. The city's traffic geeks are giddy with anticipation; its cabbies, not so much."

Here's a wonderful quote from Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado: "Christmas is the time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it. Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it."

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

Because he's a particularly smart and thoughtful fellow, we reached out to Chris Hoene, the director of policy and research at the National League of Cities, for suggestions. He wrote:

"This genre isn't one I've ever really cared much for. It's always struck me as being a little too much like the self-help genre. ... If you have to read something you're probably in trouble. ... In this case, if you have to read something to figure out how to manage people and resources, you're probably in trouble in that regard already.

"That said, I've read two things in the past year that I found to be decent resources: Good to Great and the Social Sectors, by Jim Collins. I finally had heard so much about Jim Collins' work that I had to find out for myself what all of the hubbub was about. Given that I work in what Collins loosely describes as the "social sectors," I decided to give that monograph (sort of an add-on to the book) a try first (plus, it has the advantage of being only 35 pages long ... and really, if it takes more than that to do management strategy, we're probably all in deep trouble).

"The Five Essential Leadership Questions, by R. John Young. Young has been doing some work with NLC's executive team on our senior management strategy and I've found him to be a good resource. He published his book along the way, which I think dovetails nicely with Collins' work."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

We have a kind of perverse fascination with laws that make good sense, are passed by councils and legislators, and then are barely followed. Here's one we just came across in a Maryland audit. Apparently about 26 percent of elevator inspections are overdue, as are 20 percent of inspections on boilers and pressure vessels. This is nothing new. Maryland audits have been complaining about overdue boiler and pressure-vessel inspections for about 30 years and elevator inspections for about a decade. The problem? Staffing shortages.

"Most attempts at transparency, including Missouri's portal, are roughly equivalent to posting a picture of puzzle pieces on the Web," writes Tom Sadowski, our frequent correspondent and former director of accounting for Missouri. "You can claim you are transparent. You can claim you have included everything. What you cannot claim is that what you posted is meaningful. Yes, I can see how much you paid Tom Sadowski last year. Yes, I can see all the contracts Missouri had. Yes, I can see all the expenses. What I cannot see is the whole picture. I can see almost every detail of the $22 billion Missouri spent last year. What I cannot see is anything at all about what Missouri got for its $22 billion. More importantly, I cannot tell if anything it got was at all close to what Missouri intended to get. I also get no sense if we are getting better or worse in terms of outcomes and in terms of processes."

How to save money on K-12 education? It's politically hazardous to simply cut back on appropriations. But a number of entities are taking a different approach: cutting back to a four-day school week. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures' blog, The Thicket, 18 states have some schools currently on a four-day week. And five states have introduced legislation to move in that direction. Savings come largely from less use of transportation, utilities and substitute teachers.

According to Ashley Wallace, senior policy specialist in the NCSL's education program, one downside is that these savings come directly out of the pockets of lower-wage employees like bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Meanwhile, some parents aren't crazy about this approach since it can require finding day care for Fridays or Mondays, when they're at work but the kids are now home. Some teachers, meanwhile, worry about keeping student attention and about the potential impact of the extra day off on special needs or at-risk students. To hear Wallace on the pros and cons, listen to this NCSL podcast.

Ever wish that organizations had been uploading things to the Internet years and years ago? Online searches for old documents are frequently fruitless -- even when they already exist in digital form -- because no one has had the inclination, money or time to load them up. With that in mind, we recommend the Internet Archive, a non-profit Web site founded in 1996 to build an Internet library, "with the purpose of offering permanent access for researchers, historians and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format." The site goes on to explain that it's "working to prevent the Internet -- a new medium with major historical significance -- and other 'born-digital' materials from disappearing into the past." Even if you don't find the document you seek, the site is a blast.

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba