Which Tech is Dreck?

Plus: The questionable effectiveness of tax incentives, what happens when pilots fly blind, and more
June 18, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

What piece of technology do you wish had never been invented? E-mail? Cell phones? BlackBerrys? Powerpoint? Others? Tell us what you think and why.

"While it is becoming nearly universal for businesses to extract tax concessions and incentives from state and local governments, whether these strategies influence business locations is far from clear." That's according to a new Urban Institute report, "Policy and Evidence in a Partisan Age," by Paul Gary Wyckoff.

But as long as states and localities are offering tax incentives, we'd recommend that they follow the lead of those with so-called claw-back provisions, which require that a company pay back its tax benefits if it doesn't ultimately deliver on the promises it made to the state.

Consider this example from Policy Matters Ohio: "Wal-Mart is shutting an optical lab in Lockbourne, near Columbus, eliminating 646 jobs. Our sympathies go to those workers. One small consolation for Ohio: strict provisions covering the tax credits meant that Ohio recouped $1.7 million it had given to Wal-Mart to open the plant. ... The General Assembly should take this opportunity to review accountability for all of Ohio's economic development incentive programs and strengthen them as needed."

"Nearly three years into a Medicaid privatization program former [Florida] Gov. Jeb Bush said could be a national model, state officials say they do not have crucial data to measure the program's effectiveness, including how many patients' treatments and prescriptions have been approved or denied," according to an AP article, picked up by the Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report.

Since a pilot is, in essence, an experiment, the absence of data seems like a particularly glaring omission. What's the point of having a pilot program if you don't know how well or how poorly it's working? This is the kind of pilot that seems likely to wind up lost in the clouds.

At a time when most local governments can't afford to hire all the help they need, it's critical that they get the most out of the help they have. With that in mind, the following list can be helpful. It includes eight items that members of Generation Y want out of their jobs, according to an American Management Association report by Bruce Tulgan, whose newest book is "Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y":

o performance-based compensation

o flexible schedules

o flexible location

o marketable skills

o access to decision makers

o personal credit for results achieved

o a clear area of responsibility and creativity.

The phrase "shared services" is becoming one of the hottest buzz words in state and local government. It's not that the phenomenon of towns, cities and counties saving money by joining forces to buy services is anything new. It just seems like the phenomenon is fast approaching critical mass.

New York and New Jersey, for example, are both pushing this route with gusto. According to the New York Times , "New York State has given $29 million over the past two years to help 140 local governments consolidate services, yielding $250 million in savings, said Lorraine A. Cortes-Vasquez, the secretary of state. Gov. David A. Paterson and legislative leaders in Albany are pushing a bill to encourage mergers."

The debate over this issue has deep-rooted historical origins. "It's Hamilton versus Jefferson all over again," Joseph V. Doria Jr., New Jersey's commissioner of community affairs and a former mayor of Bayonne, told the Times. "Jefferson's model was the small agrarian communities. Hamilton was in favor of more centralized government. And right now, Hamilton has the momentum."

Continuing medical education sounds like a swell idea. After all, don't you want your doctor to be up on the latest techniques, medicines and treatments? Unfortunately, according to a release from the University of Illinois (Chicago), there's very little information that shows how much good these courses actually do. According to a study by Dr. Saul Weiner, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at U of I, there are striking differences in learning and retention in the seminars studied. With the seemingly endless quest on the part of states, and the federal government, to cut the growing cost of health care, wouldn't you think that this would be the kind of information that could be really helpful?

The devil is in the details. When the Nevada legislature decided to help deal with budget problems by instituting a one-day-a-month furlough for state workers, they assumed it would be easier on employees than the salary cuts proposed by Governor Jim Gibbons. But according to an excellent piece in the Las Vegas Sun , there's a lot more to furloughs than scheduling the days off. "It's a nightmare," Andrew Clinger, the state director of administration, told the paper.

A few of the major issues the article points to: "Mike Willden, director of the Health and Human Services Department, said it will be difficult to cover shifts at 24-hour facilities such as correctional facilities for youth, psychiatric hospitals and care facilities for the mentally disabled. ... Even in departments where employees can more easily be furloughed, such as Department of Motor Vehicles offices, the result will be longer lines and reduced services. ... Wait times for services such as welfare and food stamps could grow, though Willden noted the Legislature added some positions to help process the flood of applications for government assistance that have come with the recession."

While we're writing about Nevada, it seems worthwhile to take note of our disappointment of a gubernatorial veto of Bill 446, which would have, in part, required that agencies develop mission statements and measurement indicators for each program, "which must articulate the performance goals each program is tasked with achieving and the particular measurement indicators tracked for each program to determine whether the program is successful in achieving its performance goals, provided in sufficient detail to assist the Legislature in performing an analysis of the relative costs and benefits of program budgets and in determining priorities for expenditures."

The last we looked closely at Nevada's use of performance informed budgeting, we were told that legislators were increasingly hungry for this kind of information. So, while we may be missing some details that made this provision unacceptable to the governor, it still seems kind of sad for anyone to stand in the way of getting the kind of information described above.

Why do government officials get gray hairs? Consider the following headline from the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Arizona: "Voters want more but say government too large."

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

Many months ago, when we first asked readers to send us their lists of recommended books, Jim Crane, section manager of California's Franchise Tax Board, won the prize for prolificness. He had been creating a list of books of his own over a period of years, and he sent us that list -- which featured scores of books. Upon our request, he was kind enough to winnow the list down a bit. Here are a couple of his picks:

The Power of Ethical Management, by Norman Vincent Peale and Ken Blanchard. "This is another great book -- concise and packed with a powerful message ... the most important thing I got out of this book was that a leader does not have to compromise ethics to exert influence; to the contrary, "power" as a leader is absolutely enhanced by practicing ethical behavior."

On Becoming a Leader, by Warren Bennis. "This book revealed to me the essence of leadership which I believe Mr. Bennis describes as 'deployment of self.' This book led me to turn the corner and become a leader with management skills as opposed to simply being a manager. The notion of deploying one's self may be frightening at first because it requires that one both understand one's self deeply and be comfortable in their own skin. People taking this book to heart will do a lot of work getting to the answer (or at least, partially to the answer) of that lifelong question -- 'Who Am I?' and, as a result, be much more effective as a leader."

Read the full archive of Managers Reading List suggestions.

Research Assistant: Heather Kerrigan