Winners in Detroit, Useless Data and Rethinking Charitable Giving

Plus: the message that "out of office" replies convey and more management news
March 21, 2013 AT 5:00 PM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Anyone who’s tried to develop performance measurements knows that there are certain fields for which the process is much easier than others. Transportation measures, for example, are less difficult to come by than those pertaining to economic development. We’re turning to you, B&G Readers, with a simple question: What are the governmental functions for which it’s most difficult to develop and utilize measures? Email us your thoughts.

Are there any winners in the fiscal struggle that’s left Detroit in unbelievably bad shape? Yes, according to Over recent years, banks and underwriters have brought in nearly a half a billion dollars in fees from the cash-strapped city. That doesn’t count debt service but just things like underwriting expenses and bond-insurance premiums.

“Out of the office.” We send out lots of e-mails to state and local officials, and it’s stunning how often the response contains the automatically generated message that the recipient is “out of the office” and won’t be available for a while. We suspect that this function is less an informational tool than a way to hide from citizens, lobbyists and other public officials. To the extent that we’re right, we think it’s a bad idea. The more people get the idea that appointed and elected officials are always in some mysterious alternative location, the less they’ll think they’re doing their jobs.

Even people who fully support providing all necessary services to the homeless typically don’t want to see very similar services provided to the same people by different programs. This kind of duplication of services is difficult to avoid, even for cities and states that try all kinds of database technology to do so. That’s why an experiment in New Jersey is particularly interesting.

A biometrics data management system has allowed the Bergen County, N.J., Department of Human Services to track who is receiving homeless services and how often. Individuals are required to scan their fingerprints as they come into meal and shelter access points.

Naturally, privacy questions arise -- but the effort has been sufficiently successful that it’s going to be spread statewide.

“Data by itself is useless -- and it’s painful for me to say this. You can’t pour data on a broken bone and heal it. You can’t pour data on the street and fix it. Data is only useful if it is applied for useful public benefit.” -- Federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park

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A few years back, the B&G Report regularly railed against incivility in public meetings. We cited instances of people shrieking at one another, banging on tables, even threatening violence. But, aside from suggesting that people learn to behave better, we never really offered any solutions.

Now, we’ve come across news that Springfield, Mo., Mayor Bob Stephens has clarified that bad behavior, such as cussing and cheering, is not fit for city council meetings.

Apparently, a meeting last month that focused on a proposal for a new Walmart in town went many steps over the line that separates reasonable debate from vocal brawling. According to “From this point forward, none of those behaviors will be tolerated,” said the mayor. “Individuals conducting themselves in this manner will be removed from City Hall.”

We have a bunch of friends and relatives who teach, and almost every dinner conversation focuses on pros and cons of the Common Core State Standards for schools. We know enough to know that we don’t know enough to judge these efforts. But we do know that if they’re going to be the law of the land, we may as well be pursuing them efficiently.

Maine, Hawaii and Vermont are doing just that by joining forces to buy education technology, reports Education Week. A bunch of other states are also considering joining the same effort through the Multi-State Learning Technology Initiative, which could conceivably help states pick up power at the negotiating table to get lower prices.

Does your state have an employee charitable giving program? A number of states do -- and it seems like efforts to encourage public workers to make worthwhile donations are a good thing. But we’re wondering if any states have actually looked lately at the way these efforts work. Texas certainly hasn’t, according to a recent report from its Sunset Advisory Commission that recommends updating the legislation that applies to the State Employee Charitable Campaign (SECC).

The commission suggests removing charitable organizations with administrative costs higher than 25 percent of their revenue from the approved list. Up until now, if they had been on the list prior to 2003, they were grandfathered in.

In recommending a bundle of administrative changes, the report concluded by saying: "The Sunset Commission found that in the 18 years since SECC’s first campaign, the world of charitable giving has changed significantly, but SECC has not. SECC has continued to operate as it always has, with a paper-based donation system and an unwieldy administrative structure, with little attention given to the cost or effectiveness of its operations to ensure its continued success."

Take a look at the Tax Policy Center’s new website, which is intended to provide “reliable, unbiased data and analysis about the challenges state and local governments face, potential solutions, and the consequences of competing options,” according to the revamped page. The Tax Policy Center is a joint effort of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. We think it’s a great starting place for research into a wide array of topics.

Are cities and states suffering from expensive office sprawl? It may not feel that way if you reside in a windowless cubicle in city hall. But a recent report prepared for the city of Philadelphia pointed out that it allots about 250 square feet per public employee, while corporations only allot between 160 and 175 square feet for its workers.

There’s money to be saved there, but in Philadelphia, at least, the necessary data to save the cash is often missing. For example, according to the report: The city is currently unable “to quantify the vacant square footage in owned or leased office space,” and ”departments do not regularly report changes in headcount/location and resultant space usage.”

We’re confident that Philadelphia is far from unique, and this is a field worthy of exploration in dozens of others.

This may not be a surprise to anyone reading the news about Illinois these days, but in the decades we’ve been following state fiscal matters, the Land of Lincoln has always stupefied us. It’s with this in mind that we sadly report the passing of Dawn Clark Netsch, who served as Illinois’ comptroller in the early 1990s. She died on March 5. Dawn was -- as her name implies -- the ray of fiscal light in a state that was without much clarity. One memorable case as we remember it: Illinois was essentially keeping its books as though the state had 13 months in the year. Other officials defended the practice in a manner that implied, without outright arguing, that Illinois actually did somehow squeeze in one more lunar cycle. Dawn fearlessly objected, and she reworked the process to make it clear and honest. We continue to be in her debt. She’ll be missed.