When Technology Gets You Down

Plus: Looking for a date, flawed state audits, and more
May 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Here's a question for you. Would you tell us whether technology ever slows you down, instead of making you more efficient? And how? It sure happens to us. Instead of spending some pocket change on a call to the phone companies' "information" services, for example, we discover ourselves killing 20 minutes trying to find the number online. Or we exchange eight e-mails in order to schedule a meeting when a two-minute phone call would have accomplished the same thing.

Email us with your thoughts!

Can we ask for a date? Don't misunderstand. We're not interested in dating anyone other than one another. But we're really pretty weary of finding great reports on the Internet about government that lack any obvious publishing date. Sometimes it can take 10 or 15 minutes to click our way through to this information, and often we can't ever find it. This is enormously frustrating. If we don't know whether data is from 2008 or 1998, it's pretty much worthless to us. Why is this going on? We've always assumed it was an oversight. But now a more nefarious reason has crept into our generally unsuspicious minds: Could it be that some organizations believe that a dateless manuscript has a longer shelf life?

We've wondered whether the creakiest parts of government finance are the joints -- the points at which money is exchanged between one government and another (through grant programs, for instance). The federal Single Audit seeks to monitor the flow of those dollars at the state level. Unfortunately, the actual reports are seriously flawed. A June 2007 GAO Report found that more than half of the audits of organizations with federal grant expenditures greater than $500,000 were of less than acceptable quality. What's more, we only recently became aware of how inaccessible many of the single audits are because they come in multiple parts. This is important stuff that easily escapes attention. Can you picture any politicians running on a promise to deliver a more efficient single audit?

How can you best communicate performance measures? Well over a decade ago, we recall that Harry Hatry of the Urban Institute was pushing the idea that geographic information systems -- which could show multiple sets of data disaggregated by city, ZIP code or even block -- were the way of the future. We thought he was right at the time. And now, after a recent demonstration we attended about the power of maps to communicate, we're even more confident. They're useful not just in transmitting information to legislators and citizens -- they can also be used as a powerful policy analysis tool. The use of mapping technology to present all kinds of information is just in its infancy. And when it grows up -- watch out!

Those of us who live in New York City are familiar with a terrain in which a good parking space is so valuable that some folks avoid using their cars when they want to in order to preserve the spot. So we were intrigued when we read that San Francisco is trying out a new pilot program in which sensors in the asphalt will detect whether there's a car in a space or not. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

"As SFpark is envisioned, parking rates would be adjusted based on time of day, day of week and duration of stay. People would be able to pay not just with coins, but with credit cards, prepaid debit cards and even by cell phone. If a meter is set to expire, a text message could be sent to the driver. More time could be purchased remotely. People also would be able to check parking availability before arriving at their destination via the Internet, handheld devices such as BlackBerrys, or cell phone."

Much of the effort is being financed by the federal government. We can't wait to hear how it works out.

Sometimes, issues that seem trivial can shed light on more important topics. Consider the difficulties in making sure that states and localities spread the use of resources equally throughout different population segments and geographic areas.

A recent segment on NPR's "Bryant Park Project" show highlighted this issue as it pertains to toilets. The program focused on problems in St. Louis, which started when the city and its baseball team, the Cardinals, built their new baseball facility with fewer ladies' rooms than men's rooms. Turned out this was a violation of state law, even though it's likely that more men attend baseball games than women.

So planners of Chaifetz Arena at St. Louis University went in the other direction. They installed 120 toilets for women, as opposed to 103 toilets and urinals for men. But what they thought was a good deed also turned out to be illegal. Missouri's law dictates than an equal number of porcelain fixtures be installed -- not more for women -- even though women's waiting times may be greater.

Kathryn Anthony, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, weighed in. She's on the board of directors of the American Restroom Association. She told NPR:

"The laws in St. Louis call for equal numbers of fixtures for men's and women's rooms. However, since that law was passed, other states and municipalities have passed laws calling for more fixtures for women than for men. That's what we really need. Potty parity really means men and women have equal speed of access to public restrooms when the facility is used to its maximum, as it would often be at a sports arena. It doesn't mean equal square footage or equal number of toilets for men and women; it means there's more fixtures needed for women than for men."

This brings up a performance measurement issue that's often stated -- but worth repeating. Sometimes people choose the measurement that is easier to obtain (the number of toilets), when they should go the extra yard and pick the tougher measure (the length of lines or the time spent waiting).

The importance of using the right measures of school success is just getting bigger and bigger. Witness what one well-respected expert told us off-the-record recently:

"The problem with K-12 is it's very formula driven. Schools get a lot of money year after year, and I think the question becomes -- what are they spending money on? Can they justify the huge bureaucracies in urban and suburban school districts? It goes back to a very simple thing. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between amount spent per student and results. I keep wondering about this."

School problems don't emanate from a lack of interest. According to Communities for Quality Education, every single governor in the United States has stressed the link between education funding and economic growth in recent years. Between 2004 and 2007, every governor who delivered a State of the State address emphasized this point.

Are you called on to give presentations in other cities and states? Or are members of your staff? While it's certainly nice to share, traveling elsewhere to give speeches takes time and can turn a normal workweek into an overburdened one.

So how to decide which speeches to give? Carol Ballock, a managing director at public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, is quoted in the latest issue of Business Week as arguing that speakers should make these decisions only after establishing a larger goal -- whether it's generating ideas or building a reputation -- through which to view the invitations. Then, according to Business Week, "find the audience most likely to deliver a payoff."

A few years ago, we were confidently predicting massive waves of retirements from government jobs as the Baby Boom generation ages. While there have certainly been a fair number of retirements, the tidal wave hasn't yet hit. We're wondering when it will begin to do so. Right now, it doesn't seem likely. With housing values falling, the difficulty of finding safe investments with reasonable return, rising health care costs and more, it doesn't feel to us like this is a great time for folks to head out the door.

A newly launched economic development Web site in Texas called Texas Ahead is pretty spiffy. "It offers a variety of economic data and analysis including snapshots of key Texas industries and economic sectors, detailed explanations of tools available to assist local governments in economic development initiatives and rankings of where Texas falls in comparison to other states in key arenas," according to the Austin Business Journal.

That's terrific. But we do have one lingering question: Why would such a Web site emanate from the comptroller's office? The comptroller's Web site says, "The Comptroller is the chief steward of the state's finances, acting as tax collector, chief accountant, chief revenue estimator and chief treasurer for all of state government."

Doesn't sound like there's any mention there of promoting the state.

Our Journalist of the Month award goes to Ron Marsico of Newark, New Jersey's Star-Ledger, for an article examining overtime at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. That's the quasi-governmental unit that manages bridges, tunnels, airports and transit in New York City and northern New Jersey. Writes Marsico:

"Embarrassed by years of perennially high police overtime costs, Port Authority officials called in an international management consultant two years ago.

"The agency paid KPMG $435,000 to evaluate its staffing practices and make suggestions to get things under control. Overtime had jumped 12 percent to $42.9 million over the previous year, and KPMG found plenty of problems -- no cap on overtime, difficulties reassigning staff to open posts, 'archaic' record keeping and lenient sick time and disciplinary policies.

"The results a year later?

"Overtime soared even higher in 2007, hitting $48.9 million -- a 14 percent jump over those already elevated 2006 numbers and the second-highest dollar amount in agency history, behind 2001."

Port Authority officials complained that they simply couldn't implement many of KPMG's good recommendations -- they were hamstrung by contracts already in place.

That's really unfortunate. There's much more at stake here than just money, as becomes clear from comments from Washington State University Criminal Justice Professor Bryan Vila, who wrote a book "Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue." In the Star-Ledger piece, Vila explains that "too much time spent on duty results in sharp reductions in officers' vigilance, coordination and alertness."

"We depend on them to use their judgment judiciously," said Vila, a former law-enforcement officer himself. "The idea of putting them on the street impaired and armed -- it's dumb.... This is a fundamental risk management and human capital issue."

Tom Sadowski, director of accounting of the state of Missouri -- and a regular correspondent to the B&G Report -- just shared a few ideas for good project management. Here's one that particularly intrigued us:

"Have a project angel who will speak the truth to power. They should have full access to the project and team members but they are independent of the process. The angel's job is to facilitate communication that might not otherwise occur. People collectively know what is going on but not enough thought is given on how to timely surface [important issues]."

Back in October, we mentioned preliminary work by the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, designed to help counties find ways to streamline operations and remain competitive. The final report is now out. While we have no idea how much impact it will have, we're impressed with the relative specificity of many of its recommendations. Take a look at it for yourself.

One of the most interesting findings of the most recent Government Performance Project report is that there's surprisingly high turnover in many places among people who have been on the job for relatively short amounts of time.

What should a state or city do? The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville came up with some interesting answers, especially pertaining to young people who labor in the technological mines: Make sure these men and women are offered the chance to foster close relationships with others in the department -- particularly with folks who can offer them mentoring. "Information-technology jobs are inherently stressful regardless of whether employees work in the private or public sector," said Cynthia Riemenschneider, associate professor of information systems in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. "Our findings reiterate the importance of using various types of interpersonal relationships to mitigate stress inherent in these jobs. We believe that interpersonal relationships within the workplace have important implications for employee commitment and, ultimately, the retention of information-technology workers."

Scope creep. Anyone familiar with infrastructure knows that it's one of the fundamental reasons projects go over time and over budget. But knowing this fact doesn't seem to stop the phenomenon from recurring.

About five years ago, King County, Washington, set about fixing security at its jail. The price tag now is about $52 million, more than three times the original estimate, according to a new state audit.

Credit goes to Keith Ervin, a staff reporter at the Seattle Times, for an excellent article about the topic. Wrote Ervin:

"'By the time extras like remodeling the jail booking area, pharmacy, infirmary and offices were added on to the emergency project to replace the electronic security system that controls doors and alarms,' the state Auditor's Office wrote, 'The cost of work outside the scope of the security project was approximately $14.5 million.' "

County officials argued that it was efficient to add other projects onto the original security effort. It's cheaper, after all, to do several projects at once -- particularly in a jail, where it's time-consuming to get workers with tools in and out of the premises. We get that. But why didn't they just plan for the whole project from the beginning, instead of tacking new pieces on?

This may come as a surprise to those readers who don't know us personally, but we've spent a good deal of time over the past 20 years writing about Walt Disney (including a couple of books, a TV documentary, a CD-Rom and a Web site). There's a quote from Disney that we've long found particularly inspirational, and that we think applies quite elegantly to the role of successful public-sector managers: "I happen to be an inquisitive guy and when I see things I don't like, I start thinking why do they have to be like this and how can I improve them?"

Research Assistant: Heather Kleba