Workplace Stress, When Innovations Fail, And Technology Etiquette

Plus: Payday Fraud, Citizen-Driven Budgeting, and More Management News
September 23, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Workplace stress appears to be escalating, according to an Integra Realty Resources survey highlighted in a post on Psychology Today's Wired for Success blog. Apparently, about half of respondents regularly skip lunch and a similar number work up to 12 hours a day. About four out of 10 said yelling and verbal abuse took place where they worked. Does this seem right to you, when reflecting about your workplace? We'd really like our B&G readers to let us know.

Innovation is good. We agree with that. But we think there's a significant misunderstanding afoot about innovation. When elected officials use the word, they're almost always referring to successful innovations, when the fact is that many new ideas — though innovative — are doomed to failure. This misconnection between innovation and assured success, we think, contributes to a hesitancy to take risks. And that's not good.

We recently came across a list of quotes in Blogging Innovation that back up our perspective. A few:

  • "The way to succeed is to double your failure rate." — Thomas Watson, founder of IBM
  • "I have not failed once. I've just found 10,000 ways that didn't work." — Thomas Edison
  • "An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he's in. He treats his failures simply as practice shots." — Charles Kettering
  • "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly." — Robert F. Kennedy

Tethered to technology — a little more. Some weeks ago, we published a series of commentaries about the ways cell phones, BlackBerry smartphones and the like can affect the balance between people's work and the rest of their lives. We just came across something that adds another piece to the puzzle, from Harvard Business Publishing, via Huffington Post:

"There used to be a time when you could go to have a lunch or dinner with someone and you could have, well, lunch or dinner. During that lunch or dinner you could reasonably expect uninterrupted conversation. Such Mad Men-like days are long over, just as the concept of it being rude to bring a cell phone or BlackBerry to a dinner is so early 1990s. The quick message peek, the quick text, and the occasional answering of an incoming call seem increasingly acceptable, even expected. This is not even to mention Tweeting out real-time doings and checking in with Four Square. One of my closest friends, a partner at one of the most respected venture firms, recently remarked that in the Valley (the Silicon one) it is almost considered impolite NOT to let your guest text, call, message, tweet, check in or whatever during a meal or meeting. While I may be as guilty as anyone of trying to sneak a glance at new messages or discretely thumb an under-the-table text during a dinner, I am feeling the need for us to return to the concept of a natural conversation, uninterrupted by technology."

Explain this one. Eliminating fraud is often suggested as a route to saving billions of dollars in states and other local governments. We have often discounted such claims, but we've just come across a doozy of an example that we wanted to share. recently reported that an employee in an agency in Norfolk, Va., "has been collecting pay and benefits for 12 years without ever showing up for work." According to a comment attributed to the city attorney, the former employee involved "offered virtually no explanation."

People talk about "citizen-driven" budgeting. It's certainly a phrase that's hard to argue with, at face value. Who better than the citizens to decide where their money is spent? But life is complicated. How many married couples have difficulties coming to a meaningful consensus about how to spend their income? (Years ago, we wrote an article for Ladies' Home Journal that argued that money, not sex, was the single biggest cause of marital discord.)

All that said, Larisa Benson, director of performance audit in Washington, shared some thoughts about the subject with us, and we think she makes a whole lot of sense. Here, some excerpts:

"I believe in citizen-driven budgeting for outcomes, but I remain convinced that posing the 'what should we cut?' question to citizens will never work. It's impossible to have a 'tradeoffs' discourse if you start with the cutting proposition. Is $4 billion too much to spend on Medicaid? What would be the right amount to cut (or add?). Who can answer that question?! Even among the Medicaid budget experts, I find few who can wrap their mind around that question (much less the $4 B figure — it's enough to blow anyone's fuse).

"By contrast, engaging citizens in a dialogue of contrasting priorities is not only effective, it's wondrously fun. Those hard-boiled government types who think 'the average citizen can't grasp the complexity of government' are seriously underestimating just how smart and caring most citizens really are. I have found 'regular Joe' citizens are quickly and constructively engaged if you pose the right questions and provide enough summarized concise results data to spark their natural curiosity. I think this question/frame works equally well in good revenue and bad economic times."

The four-day work week in Utah has been the source of some debate both in and out of the state. On August 5, we published an item that said Utah had been overestimating how much money it was saving in overtime and other costs with the changed work week. We've recently had cause to reread the same performance audit and noted this comment: Apparently, the absence of adequate performance measures "made it difficult to identify the effect of the four-day work week on employee productivity."

Given Utah's deserved reputation as a state that carefully measures its activities, this surprises us more than a little. If Utah can't figure this kind of stuff out, we wonder, who can?

Part of the magic of public-private partnerships is that they can effectively turn taxes into seemingly less onerous user-fees. That may work well for elected officials, but we wonder about the citizens over the long term. Consider this from the September 20 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek: "[Chicago Mayor Richard] Daley's decision in 2008 to let a Morgan Stanley-led partnership run its parking meters was especially controversial. While the $1.15 billion deal brought in cash, Bloomberg News reported in August that recent financial documents show drivers will pay at least $11.6 billion in parking meter charges in the next 75 years, or 10 times what the city received for the lease."

When should employees turn in incompetent, lazy or otherwise inadequate fellow workers? We asked that question about a month ago, and we were surprised by the variety of answers. Here are excerpts from a sampling. Thanks to the delicate nature of the question, we haven't identified the writers:

  • "...unethical behavior should be reported. Hotlines can assist employees that are tired of seeing this everyday in their work places. Personally, I am a Public employee and I resent the fact that citizens, in general, have the perception or the belief that Public employees are good for nothing. Letting go the kind of behavior to which you refer (extreme laziness, a lack of concern about the job, drug or alcohol abuse) is simply accepting that we are what citizens claim we are..."
  • "Never report waste, fraud or abuse of gov't monies if you work there ... you will end up being the one out! People at the top already know about it but don't have to acknowledge it unless some naive person tells them about it. Then they can't deny ever knowing about it!"
  • "I believe that I have an ethical obligation to take active measures to keep the organization healthy and effective. So I don't see turning someone in for incompetence or illegal behavior as being a snitch, but rather being an active participant in the life of the organization."
  • "You raise a dangerous issue. A government employee was asked by his boss to falsify a report that was going to the City Manager. The employee was asked to 'modify' the findings in a report to show that a program was going to pay for itself by covering all of its expenses in revenue. The employee attempted to seek advice from another department head. The other department head reported the contact to the first manager and suggested this employee be fired for not being loyal."

Jay Fountain is a good friend. His long career at the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, and in local government before that, totals some 42 years. The work he's accomplished makes it reasonable to describe him as one of the fathers of the performance measurement movement in government today. With that in mind, we thought you might enjoy this excerpt from a note he sent us the other day -- particularly those of you in staff positions:

"A week ago last Tuesday night I was officially appointed by the Stamford [Ct.] Board of Representatives to fill a vacant position from District 7 (where I live) ... So I became an elected official for the first time ... When the Board meeting began, after I was sworn in, I took my seat next to someone I know and who is a long-term Board member. When the first item we had to vote on came up, I turned to the person next to me as I reached down to push the button to vote and said, 'I just realized that although I have been involved with state and local governments since 1968 this is the first time I have actually voted on an issue. I have always been in a staff position making recommendations to be voted on.' I then thought, this is a serious matter having the responsibility to make the final determination on issues that may have a great effect on the lives of people."