Good Technology Investments, Spending Surpluses Wisely, and Government vs. the Press
Plus: The problems with digital textbooks and more management news
What's next in technology? Over the years, we've asked a number of questions about government's use of technology to improve management. But we've missed out on the single most obvious question, and we're hoping you'll find it interesting to answer: Tell us, please, what's been the most dramatic improvement in service delivery your government has seen as a result of investments in technology in the last few years?
A couple of weeks ago, we asked our readers what they thought about cities and states that require employees who take a sick day to produce a doctor's note. The responses are still coming in and reflect a wide diversity in attitude about this topic. We'll produce a fuller report soon. But in the meantime, we thought we'd share some excerpts of one particularly interesting take on the topic from Michael Abels, an instructor at the University of Central Florida and former city manager of DeLand, Fla.:
"We are generating organizations of distrust ... Why are habitual users of sick leave treated the same as those who occasionally and legitimately use sick leave? Treating them the same is a management failure and will lead to low morale and thus low productivity. Management's role is to know the workforce and to deal with those who abuse any policy, sick leave included."
History shows that states and cities frequently don't remember history. As a result, when surpluses come in, the unexpected dollars have wound up being spent on tax cuts, new programs, additional benefits for employees and so on. Then, when times turn, governments aren't able to keep up with the bills. But North Dakota appears to have gotten the message. According to The Bismarck Tribune, as spending in the state has gone up, "a great share of that spending has gone to infrastructure, education and deferred maintenance of state buildings and facilities...." The infrastructure investments seemed like particularly smart budgeting to us -- as much of it has been aimed at building capacity to more easily move the state's natural resources from place to place.
While there's been a great deal of attention paid to long-term funding challenges in pension plans, problems in other funds deserve attention too. Consider Ohio, whose General Assembly recently agreed to pay $25 million worth of interest on the debt it's accrued to pay unemployment compensation. These interest payments are tied directly to the state's extreme underfunding of unemployment payments, which left the fund "broke in early 2009," according to Policy Ohio. "The state has paid some of the money back but still owed $1.79 billion as of June 18."
How did Ohio get into this pickle? Policy Ohio explains: "The key problem is that employer contributions have not been sufficient, leaving the fund ill-prepared when benefit levels increase. For 11 out of the past 13 years, employers have paid less into the fund than was paid out in benefits. Ohio employers pay taxes on only the first $9,000 in each employee's annual wages, or less than a quarter of wages paid. That amount, which is well below the national average, hasn't been raised since 1995. Altogether, if Ohio employers had paid the average tax paid by employers across the U.S. between 1996 and 2006, the state trust fund would have received an additional $1.7 billion." Policy Ohio issued a report on the topic, and if you're interested in more detail, take a look.
Lowballing Medicaid expenditures isn't a new game. State legislatures have long recognized that they could help balance budgets by underestimating the amount the state would have to spend on the program in the coming year -- with confidence that they'd be required to come up with supplementary funding when the original allocation had run through. We never understood exactly where the lowballing was taking place, but have just come across a clue. A press release issued on PR Newswire stated that, "According to a 2011 analysis of Medicaid financing nationwide by Eljay, LLC, states cumulatively underfund the true costs of providing quality long term care by nearly $4.7 billion."
"Unfortunately one significant source ... of information used by policymakers -- mortality statistics -- can be fatally flawed," we wrote in the pages of Governing in February 2010. Our point at the time was that much health-care policy in the states and the federal government is informed by bad data. With that in mind, we wanted to point you to some fascinating recent research at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.
Researchers there were puzzled by the fact that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of older Americans dying as the result of falls. This seemed peculiar because reliable data indicated that the actual number of falls hadn't gone up. Turns out, according to Johns Hopkins, that the mortality rate shot up as the direct result of a change in the way cause of deaths were reported.
Explained a Johns Hopkins release: "As it turns out, the largest increase was seen in the coding subgroup 'other falls on the same level,'" which refers to when an individual falls on the same surface they are standing or walking on. These types of falls generally do not result in injuries that are immediately life-threatening.
"Death following a minor injury from a fall typically involves the elderly and usually occurs weeks or months after the fall as the result of pneumonia or other complications. Previously, many of these deaths were coded as the illness rather than the fall," said study author Guoqing Hu. "However after [the new coding process] went into effect in 1999, the rate of deaths from this type of fall jumped, suggesting a major change in death certification practices."
Farewell to our long-time next-door neighbor on this page, Girard Miller, who's written extensively about pensions, government employee health care and more for Governing's Management newsletter. He's been named chief investment officer of the $9.2 billion Orange County Employees Retirement System. As a result of the impressive appointment, Girard's strong prose will be absent from this space in the future. We've learned a lot from him over the years -- both personally and through his writings here. Thanks Girard, and good luck.
Government vs. the press -- a pet peeve of ours. We can't count the number of times when we've addressed audiences of public figures and been asked why the press is always printing negative news while ignoring the many successes of government. Frankly, we never have a really good answer to provide. But one theory just hit us, based on personal experience: A surprising number of government officials, and their assistants, don't answer phone calls or emails from the press. You'd be amazed at how many times we place a call -- aimed at exploring a practice that's been working or to get context on one that hasn't been -- and it's as though we're leaving a message in a shoe box. Truth in advertising: As we write this we're stinging over a note we just got from a high-level state official, whose office had ignored a series of phone calls. His email began with the uppercase word "STOP." Apparently, he was sick and tired of getting messages he didn't think were worth answering. Maybe he was right. Maybe our questions weren't worth his time (we don't believe this, but it could be true). But of all the options he had, the worst was to ignore us and then reply rudely. It's not the job of government employees to placate the press of course. But a little common-sense politeness goes a long way.
The idea that digital textbooks could save America's school districts loads of money sounds intuitively sensible. Equally persuasive is the idea that the kind of interconnectivity that tablets like iPads offer could enhance the educational experience of traditional hardbound texts.
Unfortunately, intuition isn't always on the money. A recently published piece in Education Week points to some of the potential flaws in these notions. Here, a few excerpts from the piece: "Proponents of digital textbooks say they save school districts money, even when factoring in the costs of tablets. In figures cited by the Digital Textbook Collaborative from Project RED, a research project that examines the use of technology in education, a 500-student school can save between $35 and $250 per student per year by switching to digital textbooks.
"But more than $100 of those estimated per-student savings is associated with improved student discipline, increased teacher attendance, and digital student assessment, highly variable costs not directly tied to digital content. The estimate also assumes the price of a tablet is $250, less than many tablets, including the iPad, which runs between $379 and $700, depending on the specifications."
The Education Week piece offers more evidence that this is far from a settled issue. As it reports, "Using numbers from the 11,000-student Palo Alto district, in California, the San Jose Mercury News determined that hardware and content for digital textbooks on the iPad would add up to three times the cost of sticking with print."
As B&G Readers know, we spend a lot of time trying to understand the inner workings of American cities. Sometimes that distracts us from the things that make them such remarkable places. With that in mind, we offer this quote from Nora Ephron, the wonderful author and screenwriter who died on June 26, 2012: "I live in New York City. I could never live anywhere else. The events of September 11 forced me to confront the fact that no matter what, I live here and always will. One of my favorite things about New York is that you can pick up the phone and order anything and someone will deliver it to you. Once I lived for a year in another city, and almost every waking hour of my life was spent going to stores, buying things, loading them into the car, bringing them home, unloading them, and carrying them into the house. How anyone gets anything done in these places is a mystery to me."