Putting Data to Use, Paying Cops to Shoot and the Politics of Revenue Estimates
Plus: Wise words from a former dicator, and more management news
Performance measurement isn't uncommon anymore. But how many governments are actually using the data to improve budgeting, management and policy decisions? Studies, including some by the Government Accountability Office, offer pretty bleak news on this front. And that raises another question: What can be done to persuade policymakers that real information can be a useful tool?
These are questions being explored by a new organization, GovPerformance, based in Austin. (Truth in advertising: The two of us are on GovPerformance's board.) As a starting point, GovPerformance is trying to get answers to a handful of questions from a variety of government people — including B&G readers. Here's the first of those, and we're hoping you'll be sufficiently intrigued to respond. The benefit for B&G readers is that we'll make sure you are all in the loop as this research leads to conclusions that we hope will be useful.
Here's the question: Does your government use results-based performance information, and how? (For example, is it used for management, resource allocation, policymaking, communication with constituents or in other ways?) If so, we'd really appreciate an example or two (or more, if you have the time).
Email us with your feedback. Thanks!
Here's a management practice that gives us the heebie-jeebies. We've just learned that the police union in Albuquerque, N.M., has been paying up to $500 to every police officer who shoots someone. Apparently the idea is that this cash would help officers deal with problems they encounter after a shooting.*
We don't believe police officers would fire their weapons for $500. But we wouldn't bet that the payment doesn't feel like an incentive to some. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry says he only recently became aware of the practice, and he's trying to get rid of it.
Revenue estimating may seem like an esoteric branch of government budgeting. But in a surprising number of instances, problems in the revenue-estimating process have been the underlying cause of unanticipated shortfalls. That's because there's often quite a bit of political pressure to keep those estimates high, in order to allow governors or legislators an easier path in putting together a budget. The good news is that this hasn't been as much of an issue lately: After years of shortfalls, estimates are coming in on the conservative side.
But now take a look at New Jersey. The state's Office of Legislative Services' (OLS) revenue forecast for fiscal 2013 is $537 million less than what the governor's office is predicting. This is an especially hot topic in light of Gov. Chris Christie's current argument that the state can afford a substantial income tax cut. The debate has gotten kind of ugly, with Christie attacking the OLS's credibility.
According to an article from the online news service NJ Spotlight, "a review of more than two decades of OLS and Treasury Department figures showed that the widest differences in revenue projections usually occurred in the budgets proposed in gubernatorial election and reelection years. Invariably, OLS's estimates were more conservative than those of the state treasurers, and while revenue forecasting is an inexact science, OLS's forecasts generally proved much closer to the mark."
Only the future will tell whether the governor or the OLS was closer, but one thing is pretty clear: New Jersey gives the final call on revenue estimates to the governor's office. So guess whose numbers will prevail in the budget?
Elected officials should take heed of a dictator who sounded like a typical citizen: "I would not vote for the mayor," Fidel Castro once said of New York's then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "It's not just because he didn't invite me to dinner, but because on my way into town from the airport there were such enormous potholes."
Barely a day goes by when we're not reaching out to governments for a relatively simple piece of information. And it never fails to amaze us how difficult it can be to clarify basic public facts. Whenever this happens, we wonder how hard it must be for citizens who haven't spent the last quarter-century calling cities, counties and states.
Turns out that even high-ranking state officials run into the same problems. Ohio Auditor Dave Yost recently decided to find out how well local governments answered requests for government records. He asked Ohio's 247 municipalities for payroll record information. Only 60 percent provided the info within 10 days. It took a month to reach a 75 percent response rate. A few cities, according to Yost's office, "failed to respond at all, despite three additional requests."
Remember, this was a request from a high-ranking state official.
From our User-Fee Beat: Here's more evidence of the user-fee backlash we've been predicting. Prisoners in the Cook County, Ill., jail have had to pay $15 for 15-minute phone calls, according to Chicago Public Radio. The county board president has called for an end to the inflated rates.
This seems so simple, you'd think you'd see it everywhere. Delaware County, Ind., has recently picked up some $1.5 million by identifying homeowners who claimed a homestead exemption benefit on their property taxes, according to Government Technology. The key is that homestead exemptions generally only apply to a primary residence. So the county began by working with LexisNexis and Tax Management Associates to identify which of those homeowners actually had a primary residence elsewhere.
And here's the cool part: The county sent questionnaires to the homeowners to get more information and determine whether they did, in fact, owe back taxes. You might think the taxpayers would be inclined to deny that they had a primary residence somewhere else. But as Tara Shinn, the correction of error clerk in the county auditor's office, told Government Technology, the vast majority of people in this situation tend to be completely honest.
So, let's say you got a parking ticket in Long Beach, Calif. And let's say you didn't pay it. There's a decent chance the matter would end there, according to a recent city audit. Apparently, Long Beach has neglected to collect some $17 million in unpaid tickets. The cause? Ineffective software.
The irony here, according to a Los Angeles Times article, is that the city picked up a new system in 2000. But "the database was never cleansed to eliminate old, incorrect or uncollectible citations," reported the Times. That, in turn, made the IT system run like molasses.
The city's mayor has vowed to fix things, but it's going to take a long time. Meanwhile, we wonder how common this problem is, particularly in cities with IT that's far older and clunkier than the system in Long Beach. In a time when cities are turning over every rock in search of new revenues, it's probably worth it for them to find out.
Bet you couldn't guess the answer to this if we gave you a dozen tries: Where was the 39th annual Connecticut Spring Antiques Show held this year?
You might guess Hartford, where the event has been held in recent years. Or maybe you'd think New Haven or Bridgeport or Stamford.
Here's the sad answer. The Connecticut Spring Antiques Show was held in Massachusetts. According to the Hartford Courant, the event couldn't find any place in Connecticut that was suitable, available and affordable, now that the Connecticut Expo Center in Hartford closed last year. We don't doubt that the event's organizers wanted to keep it in Connecticut. But it boggles us that no place in a state with 3.6 million people could serve as a suitable locale. We assume the state's department of economic development is worried about this. If not, it should be.
The New York Times recently editorialized that state governments weren't to be trusted, as they "combine corruptibility with incompetence." As such, the newspaper indicated that great care should be taken about giving the states any more responsibilities that could be handled by the federal government.
We respect The New York Times, but we couldn't help but feel that, in this case, the paper was living in a different world than the one we have been covering for the last 20-plus years.
We were thinking about how to respond in print, when the answer fell into our laps in the form of a letter to the editor written by William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislators. Here's what he had to say:
"Re 'The States Get a Poor Report Card' (editorial, March 20):
"In the tradition of our founding fathers, most state lawmakers are citizen-legislators. You cite a study that graded states poorly on ethics issues, yet you did not acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of the 7,382 state legislators are honorable public servants.
"Forty-one states have ethics commissions, a trend that began in the 1970s. Congress, on the other hand, didn't create its own ethics commission until 2008, and unlike many states, failed to give it subpoena power. Congress has had a rash of ethical issues, and is facing one right now over members' insider trading.
"To say Congress should hold on to the most 'important programs' because states can't be 'trusted' is absurd. Many of these programs were actually started by the states. Americans have little confidence that Congress, with an approval rating of 12 percent, can solve the country's problems. They are far more certain that the states can."
*This column has been updated to reflect the fact that the Albuquerque police union — not the city itself — offers payments to police officers.