When Tech Advancements Are Really Retreats

Plus: Under-reporting homicides, under-sharing best practices, and more
July 9, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

In the last edition of the B&G Report, we asked readers to tell us which technologies they wish had never been invented. BlackBerrys and cell phones led the list, with several respondents offering comments similar to that of Susan Ault, Administrative Officer of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. She wrote: "I would have to vote for cell phones. I think it's great that we have the capability to contact anyone, anywhere, anytime, but this is a double-edged sword. Because of this capability, society expects us to be on-call 24/7 ... Work encroaches on our personal time unless we choose to turn the phone off. If you do so, be prepared to hear from your boss."

Here's a handful of some more interesting comments we received:

"Fully-electronic, paperless voting machines should never have been invented."

-- Stanley Koski, Senior Electrical Engineer, Central Maine Power Company

"There is nothing more distracting, and rude, than for members of an audience, or those in attendance at a meeting, to be checking e-mails, news, and sports scores on their Blackberries while someone is speaking. Raspberries to all of them."

-- Bruce Langner, Planning & Economic Development Director, Bexley, Ohio

"I wish Microsoft had never developed VISTA, which had a bunch of quirks and hardware/software incompatibilities in it, meaning it could not do all the things XP had been doing for years. And now VISTA seems poised to be another instant-obsolete-product (like Microsoft BOB). I can't wait for the $49.95 BestBuy deal on a Windows 7 Home Premium upgrade (coming in October 2009)."

-- A New York State civil servant

"Easily the BlackBerry. This most abused of instruments, combined with Twitter and e-mail, creates the possibility for an electronic tether that blurs the boundaries between work and, well, that thing called your personal life. This in turn heaps on ridiculous expectations of instant response times and encourages that work of the devil called "multitasking." The habit of reflexive response saps our energies and our abilities to concentrate. It also contributes to inconsiderate behaviors in meetings and conferences. Yes, I know that not every minute of a meeting is relevant but whatever happened to doodling? No one needs this much accessibility unless the person in question is a brain surgeon or a key leader in charge of, say, a country (so, yeah. Obama should keep his. Everyone else, chill already)."

-- Teresa A. Hubley, Research Associate, Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine

"I know where this is going. You'll get lots of responses expressing frustration with how technology has made a mess of people's lives, added stress, and short-cutted communication. But -- much like how guns are not inherently evil; it's the people who point and shoot them -- I would not un-do any of technology's innovations. What I would prefer is that the people who point and click with this technology exercise a dash more judgment in doing so."

-- John Traylor, Director of Development Services and Indigent Services, Ada County, Idaho

There's no management tool so powerful or useful that it can't be mucked up. That's the lesson we draw from a recent article in the Detroit News that castigates the city's police department for under-reporting homicides.

Maybe we're naïve, but when we get on our soapbox and advocate performance measurement, it never really occurs to us that government officials might be given to manipulating the data to get to the reported results they want. But in Detroit, according to the News, "The police department incorrectly reclassified 22 of its 368 slayings last year as 'justifiable' and did not report them as homicides to the FBI as required by federal guidelines. There were at least 59 such omissions over the past five years, according to incomplete records obtained from the police department through the Freedom of Information Act."

One of the misclassifications that begged logic, for instance, were two men who were stabbed to death, but weren't considered homicides due to "insufficient evidence."

All of which brings us to the thought that cities, counties and states should really consider effectively auditing their measures in some way, before either using them to manage, to budget or to communicate with the public.

Share and share alike. With a growing emphasis on "best practices" (which we prefer to call "proven practices"), it feels to us like there might be a fair number of useful management tools that go unused because they're developed in one field and never communicated in another. How many beneficial techniques for running schools could be applied to prisons, for example? We're reminded of this thought by a study in the June issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons that "shows a method used by air traffic controllers may be more effective in tracking patient data and lead to fewer errors compared with current methods used in similar medical settings," according to Newswise.

Congratulations to Massachusetts. According to a survey by Surescripts, a medical networking company, some 20.5 percent of all eligible prescriptions are routed electronically from physicians' offices to pharmacies. That's the best in the nation. This is the kind of technology that seems particularly useful to us. It potentially saves money -- in addition to reducing the likelihood of errors in prescriptions filled.

Among the wacky ideas we've never had the guts to try is this one: We'd like to send invoices to states, cities and counties around the country, with a fancy -- fictitious -- letterhead that reads something like "Patentonics, Inc." We'd invoice them all for something like $27.45, "for services rendered," and see how many actually paid up (of course, we'd tear up the checks). The problem of course is that this may be not only unethical, but illegal. That said, based on an article about Los Angeles County that we just came across, we think it may be just the kind of entity that would put a check in the mail.

According to the L.A. Times, that county has been paying about $1.5 million a year for telephone lines that aren't in use. "Officials worry that some lines may have never served a county purpose ... One was registered to a now-defunct ticket brokerage in Hollywood called Theatix. For 14 years, the bill for the line -- currently $38 a month -- has been paid by taxpayers."

County auditors are only about halfway through their work -- so the $1.5 million number may eventually be found to be even higher.

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

Terrell Blodgett isn't only one of the outstanding lights in the galaxy of government management experts, he's also one of the most beloved. He is the Mike Hogg Professor Emeritus in Urban Management at the LBJ School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas, and here's his book recommendation: The Facilitative Leader in City Hall , by James H. Svara, Ph.d.

Blodgett writes:

"Political leadership is a continuing challenge in virtually every city of any size in the United States. Svara, a recognized scholar in the field of municipal leadership, demonstrates through case studies by him (and a few guest authors) that mayors utilizing a facilitative style of leadership -- providing vision, building relationships with the city council and administrative staff, can be more effective than mayors operating through authoritarian or power-based style, regardless of the form of government employed by a city. Svara thus presents a strong argument that, contrary to some beliefs, many mayors in cities utilizing the council-manager form of government, can and indeed are currently offering strong political leadership for their communities."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

New Jersey legislators were recently greeted with a little rare good news, when it turned out that the state's tax amnesty program yielded dramatically more new revenues than had been predicted. According to the Philadelphia Business Journal , "New Jersey expected to generate $100 million when the 45-day program was launched, but at its close had collected more than $600 million in back taxes owed. Final revenue could increase by another $50 million to $100 million once the remaining 17,500 envelopes are opened and processed, the Governor's Office said."

We're sorry to throw cold water on the state's windfall, but we can't help wonder: How did the state let so much accumulate in uncollected tax dollars? If taxpayers seemed willing to cough up those dollars when penalties were dropped and interest decreased, couldn't the state have figured out some way to persuade the same taxpayers to send in their checks on time? That's another way to avoid penalties and interest.

We just came across this wonderful poem by Jimmy Carter from his book Always a Reckoning , which came out over a decade ago. Some of you may already be familiar with it, but for those who aren't, we thought it well worth passing along.

Progress Does Not Always Come Easy

As a legislator in my state

I drew up my first law to say

that citizens could never vote again

after they had passed away.

My fellow members faced the troubling issue

bravely, locked in hard debate

on whether, after someone's death had come,

three years should be adequate

to let the family, recollecting him,

determine how a loved one may

have cast a vote if he had only lived

to see the later voting day.

My own neighbors warned me I had gone

too far in changing what we'd always done.

I lost the next campaign, and failed to carry

a single precinct with a cemetery.

Apologies to any readers who may have been offended by our use in the last B&G Report of a Yiddish word for excrement. We don't want to risk further offense by repeating the word, but it rhymes with "wreck." Our minimal Yiddish led us to believe that it was a milder word than it may actually be, according to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish .

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba