Competing With the Feds, Filing Your Email and Sell-By Dates for Data
Plus: Getting it right on overtime, and more management news
At a time when states and localities are having real difficulties attracting strong candidates from the nation's college graduates, here's something else to worry about: The federal government has started going after the same pool of potential applicants, and its efforts to grab them off the nation's campuses have been pretty strong. We were talking about this to one state HR director, who bemoaned the number of instances in which state recruitment offices discover that the "feds have swooped in" and hired the same young people they would have wanted.
We always feel a little guilty about our email. This isn't true when we're sending it — or reading it. The guilt comes into play when we're trying to find an important email that we received in the past. As we relentlessly scroll through messages (not easy given the sheer numbers of messages we get), or search with keywords (a somewhat better approach), we always find ourselves wishing we'd neatly filed the emails as they came in.
Well, we've just gotten sprayed with "Guilt-Be-Gone." According to a study by IBM Research, the time spent filing emails may be of minimal value. "We expected high filers to be more successful given their investment in preparing materials for retrieval," the report reads. "[But] contrary to our expectations, high filers were no more successful at finding messages than low filers."
The methodology and research behind this finding is a little difficult to translate, but we recommend taking a look at the study for yourself.
It feels to us like the "sell-by" dates on supermarket products are getting shorter and shorter. It seems that by the time you get home with a loaf of bread, it's already expired. But what's frustrating at the market could be extremely useful in the public sector. Even though technology now allows an increasing amount of real-time information, significant managerial and policy decisions continue to be based on antiquated numbers. What we need is a sell-by date for data.
This isn't just a domestic issue. Ben Goldacre is a physician with a real interest in flawed statistics. In a recent entry on his blog, he points out a quote from the British Journal of Cancer saying that "If the [National Health Service] was performing at truly world-class levels we would save an extra 5,000 lives from cancer every year."
The source of that info? Data that extends back as far as a quarter of a century.
Several weeks ago, we asked for B&G readers' opinions about employees who accrue overtime hours for time that included sick days. We're still filtering through the many answers we received, and we guarantee that we'll be providing an overview in the near future.
In the meantime, we wanted to share a note that we received from Andrew Scribner-MacLean, the police business administrator of Reading, Mass. Although he didn't focus in on the relationship between sick days and overtime, he did have some very interesting thoughts, questions and recommendations to make about overtime in general. Here, some excerpts from his note:
"Overtime is incredibly complex with overlapping local, state and federal policies governing its use. A snippet of data from a report doesn't provide clarity but can reinforce opinions about abuse of overtime. Overtime is a necessity to control payroll costs in shift based labor forces — police, fire, hospitals, etc. The community in which I work takes a constant and close look at this issue and, in my opinion, is managing it well.
"Here are some things that [will help administrators] better understand overtime, control its use and have better budget planning.
• "Establish policies for employees working overtime for projects/events. ... If a policy exists, it is less likely that overtime will be administered unfairly or inappropriately." Answers should be established to such questions as what happens to police officers working a special event in the community.
• "Determine whether you are in compliance with local, state, and federal rules about paying your employees. These are complex and require thoughtful examination to avoid triggering damages.
• "Are there minimum staffing levels for police, fire, etc.? If so, shift overtime volume can be predicted and budgeted for.
• "Do temporarily vacant positions remain funded so that the salary costs can be absorbed by those working overtime to cover the opening? This is a common and appropriate practice but one that can establish a lack of transparency depending on how much OT someone wants to show in budget reports.
• "Can you track usage over time (multiple years) to see if the use is rising or falling relative to staffing requirements?"
It's no surprise to state and local agencies that there's a big gap between having a program passed by legislators and actually having it funded. Observers are predicting that this gap will only continue to broaden in 2012 as the decision to fund an approved project is as tough as it's ever been.
We only recently realized that we've been a bit narrow-minded when considering this issue in the past. Our sympathies have always gone to the agencies awaiting the dollars.
But a blog post at the Georgia Tech Procurement Assistance Center points out that this phenomenon is particularly difficult on the companies contracted to carry out the work. Without knowing whether the promised funds will actually show up, companies can easily wind up spending money gearing up — without ultimately having anything to gear to. This is not a good thing for economic development.
Many governors have pointed to community colleges as linchpins of their states' higher education systems. The importance of these institutions has even come up in the current presidential race. And yet, according to a paper by Christopher M. Mullin, program director for policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, "there is the concern, among some, that a focus on completion [of a community college program] has the potential to influence just who is allowed to take advantage of educational opportunities. In policy conversations, especially those concerned with policies related to access and choice, there is a silent movement to redirect educational opportunity to 'deserving' students."
While we can understand the managerial impulse to be selective in admissions, we also know that there's a pile of data showing the benefits of community colleges. And we share with Mullin a concern that restricting access — which is currently relatively wide open — could have some negative consequences. While students who complete the entire program may have a higher likelihood of life success than those who don't, doesn't it make sense that people who don't complete their community college experience will still benefit somewhat? And that there's a strong likelihood that society as a whole will be better off than if those same people were just jettisoned into the workforce with zero additional education?
"We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That's a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced." — Kevin Kelly
Policy changes often make lots of sense until they are confronted with the real world. This is where good management comes into play. Consider the notion of placing video cameras in parking facilities to cut down on crime. This Big Brother technique certainly seems sensible. But now take a look at this excerpt from a recent report by the Urban Institute:
"Overall, the analyses revealed that after the cameras were added to Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) parking facilities, car crimes specifically and crimes in general remained at pre-camera levels. Researchers also found no evidence of displacement or diffusion to areas surrounding the Metro stations. These findings are consistent with recent research suggesting that video surveillance cameras are more likely to have an impact when they are highly concentrated, actively monitored, and integrated into the broader law enforcement strategy."
Half the population of the United States lives in suburbs. But when was the last time you read anything about the burbs' fiscal health and management?
That information gap amplifies the importance of a recent book, Managing the Fiscal Metropolis by Rebecca Hendrick, associate professor of public administration at the University of Illinois. "The suburban context is very critical and has been ignored especially in the subject matter of public finance and financial management," Hendrick told us. Her interviews with officials from 62 suburbs in the Chicago region, along with analysis of fiscal data from 264 other locales, left her convinced that, in this case, cribbing from your neighbor is a good thing. "Looking at what the suburb next to you is doing is really important."
Among Hendrick's other conclusions:
- Governance plays an important role in the fiscal health of suburbs. Entities in growth mode benefit particularly from professional management.
- If the state did more to share sales tax revenue according to need, rather than strictly point-of-sale, it would reduce economic development competition.
- More coordination at the state level, perhaps through incentives, could help to create cooperation rather than competition.
We're a little late bringing this news to you, as it came out at the end of 2011 (rather ironic in an edition of the B&G Report that complains about out-of-date data). But it's still more than worthwhile for you to know about the newly updated and revised edition of What You Should Know about Your Local Government's Finances. It's now available from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board's store for $14.95.
According to a GASB press release, "The new guide offers taxpayers, their elected representatives, and other users of governmental financial information a comprehensive, easy-to-understand primer on the annual financial reports of local governments. What You Should Know about Your Local Government's Finances now includes the major new requirements issued since the publication of the original guide, including those on retiree health insurance, derivative instruments, and fund balance."