Shared Services, Fat Stats, and a New Yorker's Account of Sandy

Plus: Finding Medicaid waste and more management news
November 8, 2012 AT 5:00 PM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

Are shared services a panacea? You tell us! We recently realized that we recommend the use of shared services to readers often, and since we have a profound mistrust of “common knowledge,” we thought it would be worthwhile to lean on you, B&G Readers, who are on the front lines of managing such efforts.

How have shared services worked for you? What problems have cropped up along the way? Let us know, so we can help other readers avoid any potholes into which you’ve run.

Along the same lines, "citizen input" is another notion that’s repeatedly cited as a key to a well-managed government. But like so many tips for good management, there’s a gulf between the vision and the reality. In Taos, N.M., which has nearly 5,000 residents, the City Council just eliminated its quarterly Citizens’ Forum, “in which members of the public could address the governing body about a variety of concerns,” according to The Taos News.

As the local newspaper explains, “Apparently attendance has been light at the Citizens' Forums -- especially since the council changed its meetings time from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. this spring. ... The council voted 3-1 to move the time in the hope that more working people would be able to attend [but] the time change also put council meetings in direct conflict with meetings of the Taos Municipal School Board, which begin at 5:30 p.m.

“Town Manager Oscar Rodríguez said no one showed up for the last couple of forums. He said the council hasn't discussed changing the time of the meetings back to 1:30.”

A recent audit of the Massachusetts program, MassHealth, which combines adult and children's Medicaid, found that in 2010 it spent $6,456,195 on health-care services for 4,649 individuals who were subsequently removed from the program for not being a Massachusetts resident, for receiving benefits from another state, or because their whereabouts were unknown. The audit suggests that MassHealth should follow the lead of states such as New York, New Hampshire, and California which ask for a driver’s license, utility bills or other documentation to prove residency.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided to give states the option of expanding Medicaid, states will have significantly different levels of Medicaid eligibility and those that expand Medicaid may face this as an issue going forward.

In fairness, the $6 million Massachusetts spent was a small amount relative to the size of the state’s Medicaid program. But it’s reminiscent of this paraphrased famous quote: “$6 million here and $6 million there and pretty soon we’re talking real money.” (By the way, it turns out that the common attribution of the original quote to former U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen is probably wrong, but the quote is still good.)

Beware of the executive summary. While we appreciate a well-constructed executive summary to an evaluative report, they really aren’t a replacement for the entirety of the research done. For one thing, it’s easy to highlight the positives or negatives in a disproportionate way. For another, as we recently learned from a thread on the American Evaluation Association’s listserv, EvalTalk, it’s possible that the executive summary to a report may be unduly influenced by a client -- not by the independent evaluator upon whose authority the report rests.

According to The New York Times, “[South Carolina] Gov. Nikki R. Haley said a hacker in another country had staged several cyberattacks on the State Department of Revenue since August. The authorities are urging anyone who has filed a South Carolina tax return since 1998 to contact state law enforcement officials to try to prevent identity theft.”

Wouldn’t that mean that a huge portion of the state's population as well as citizens who had moved from South Carolina in the last fourteen years, would be contacting the state? Maybe we’re missing something here, but that sure sounds like a tall order.

This note came our way a few weeks ago, from Jane T. Feldman, executive director of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, and we wanted to share it: “I was thrilled to read in Governing today that people who say government should be run like a business make your blood boil. I have been a public-sector employee since 1981 and have seen firsthand what happens when a business model is applied to governmental decisionmaking.

“My job isn’t to make profits, but to treat people fairly. The public submits comments on what I do, and newspapers come to some of my meetings and can see my files. It is a totally different environment.”

Without the Internet, writing the B&G Report would be much more difficult. That said, one of the flaws we find with search engines is that an actual government report is often buried deep down in a list of search results. This makes more work for us, but that’s beside the point. We think it also encourages others to rely on secondary references because they’re so much easier to find than the primary ones. At the least, we wish all news accounts of state or local reports would include links to the actual report.

As states and cities have moved to tackle the so-called national obesity crisis, many have cited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate that the typical American consumes 95 to 100 pounds of sugar each year. Now, the Agriculture Department has come up with a new methodology that pins that number to 76.7 pounds, with one of its economists acknowledging that even the revision is far from perfect but it's better than the prior estimates. All of this leads us to two thoughts: 1) We’d really rather that promulgators of statistics have the guts to update and change their numbers, rather than sticking with old numbers that they know are false. 2) Wouldn’t you think that the department would now avoid releasing an estimate that extends to one-tenth of a pound? That provides an illusion of precision that seems self-defeating in the long run.

This website, out of West Redding, Conn., could provide some interesting fodder for discussions about revenue-savings in towns and cities, large and small around the country. According to the Wall Street Journal a taxpayer group in Redding “asked a group of residents with business or other financial experience to conduct a line-by-line audit of local expenditures.” In the process, the group “cast a wide net to identify the most successful (if largely unheralded) cost-saving measures that have actually been adopted in other parts of the country and Canada.”

A few ideas:

• Use graduate students as substitute teachers and classroom aides, and pay them in academic credit.

• Use volunteers to fill in for simple, fundamentally clerical, police functions.

• Use purchasing networks to give groups of governmental entities a “big pencil,“ in negotiating for a variety of goods and services.

• Reward early graduation from high school.

Real-time report. We're writing this B&G Report from a remote location, since our apartment in New York City has been evacuated as a result of Hurricane Sandy. We're grateful for having landed safely in a spot that -- at least right now -- has power and water. What’s more, insofar as municipal involvement, we’ve got to say we’re impressed. We just got a telephone call (a recording, actually) from the first selectman in Bethel, Conn., where we’re located, telling us that the library is open for Internet access and that if we need shelter or a hot meal, the municipal center is available. Back in New York City, information about the evacuation has been clear and constant, including a thorough e-mail from City Councilmember Gale Brewer. The glory of this is the fact that we’ve been able to rely on the public sector for this highly useful information -- and haven’t been left to seek it out on our battery-powered radio.