Giving Thanks to Government, Bad Data, and "Greening" Jails

Plus: 4 questions to ask before sharing services and more management news
November 29, 2012 AT 5:00 PM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

You’re probably reading this a week or so after Thanksgiving. With the overwhelming cacophony of complaints about government, we’d like to offer B&G Readers a chance to express some positive thoughts. Would you email us one element of your government’s work for which you give thanks? Maybe you’d like to mention an innovative supervisor, declining crime rates or less traffic congestion -- and don’t worry about keeping it short. We hope a sufficient number of readers respond, so we can put together a nice “thank you” list in time to kick off the new year on an exhilarating note.

A few fascinating facts from the “Health and OPEB Funding Strategies: 2012 National Survey of Local Governments” by Cobalt Community Research, a nonpartisan nonprofit that helps municipal organizations:

• The percentage of governments in which employees receive health insurance through their union jumped from 2 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in 2012.

• The percentage of local governments that do not provide health insurance for retired employees increased from 46 percent in 2011 to 59 percent in 2012.

• The Midwest showed the largest increase, up from 50 percent to 68 percent.

• As in 2011, there was a slight decrease in the percentage of local governments that are fully or partially prefunding their retiree health liabilities.

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In a recent issue of Archie Comics, we came across a one-page strip in which Archie’s dad is sitting at his desk and announces, “I’ve been going over our budget, Mary. … There’s only one way we can make ends meet!”

“How, Fred?” replies Archie’s mom, and Archie’s dad answers: “You’ve got to stop buying necessities.”

You wouldn’t think there’d be much crossover between Archie and Public Management (PM) magazine, but just bear with us for a moment. In the September issue of PM, there’s a fascinating article that begins “Police driver training is a typical casualty of the budget ax during tight times. It’s an easy cut to make if nothing bad has happened recently, but that’s not a good long-term strategy.” The piece goes on to explain that “police-vehicle collisions often represent the greatest liability for local governments. Just one incident can result in a series of claims against an agency.” These include workers comp claims, damage to patrol cars, damage to other vehicles and property, and police professional liability.

The conclusion: “It’s time to view driver training as an investment, not a cost. Being proactive to this area is much less expensive than paying for the aftermath of unnecessary collisions.”

More bad data. When we get on our soapbox to argue that government can be better managed with solid data, we sometimes leave out an important idea: The data needs to be accurate, timely and reasonable. We know that we’ve made this point in the B&G Report in the past, but we think it can’t be repeated enough.

Exhibit A: A 2010 national survey of employers was flaunted throughout and beyond Massachusetts when it demonstrated that the cost of employer-offered health insurance had dropped dramatically in the state. It turns out, according to the Boston Globe, that that was premature exhilaration. The paper reports that the methodology wasn’t quite right and as a result, “the latest data show that the family plans offered through Massachusetts employers once again cost more, on average, than in any other state.”

John McDonough, director of Harvard’s Center for Public Health Leadership, told the Globe that the 2010 results were “wacky” and went on to say: “It’s a cautionary tale, in terms of never taking too seriously statistical news that shows such a sudden shift in either direction.”

“Green” jails are an interesting trend spreading across the country, according to the National Association of Counties (NACo). For example, Multnomah County, Ore., is recycling inmates’ blankets into bedding for pets as part of its Sustainable Jail Project.

“It’s a trend that’s playing out across the nation with county correctional facilities seeking green building certification, composting food waste and planting gardens,” reports NACo. “These measures are helping the environment and, in some cases -- like Multnomah’s -- saving counties big bucks. Sustainability initiatives in FY11 resulted in more than $400,000 in cost savings for the Sheriff’s Office, according to Sheriff Dan Staton.”

Similarly, in New Mexico, the Los Alamos County Justice Center has focused on such green features as “an improved thermal building envelope, energy-efficient glazing, an overhang shading system, high-efficiency mechanical systems, a rainwater drip irrigation system and a reflective roofing system.”

“I made more decisions in a half-day as governor than you can make in a whole week in the Senate. … It’s too slow for me.” -- Chuck Robb, former governor and senator of Virginia

About a month ago, we asked B&G Readers if they would give up civil service rights and become “at-will” employees in exchange for a financial incentive. While our inbox wasn’t overwhelmed with responses, the consensus was a clear “No.”

The following is one of the more thoughtful comments, from Rick Stauts, executive director of Florida City, Fla.’s Community Redevelopment Agency: “I worked for the state of Florida for 14 years until 2003; had a personnel file full of commendations and letters from local governments complimenting my work on their behalf. I was part of two teams that won state awards for improving efficiency. Then there was a change of management in my bureau and several of us experienced employees (with higher salaries) could do nothing right. Two top-notch employees who had long been eligible to retire did so. I left state government and many other experienced staffers transferred as soon as the chance arose.

“Within three years after I left, all three new managers had been run off, but by then it was too late. When HUD came in for a major monitoring, it was a mess.

“Would I have given up what little civil service protection I had to be at the mercy of the new management? Not on your life. It was the only thing that kept me there while I looked for another job. I am now working for a small city at double what I made at the state. I work for a great mayor and city commission. I am allowed to get my job done, and I enjoy getting up in the morning and coming to work. I am 66 and not planning to retire any time soon. I am having too much fun!”

We’ve long lamented the minimal use of the words 'I’m sorry' or “I want to apologize for the inconvenience” on the part of city and state employees when confronted with an irate citizen. There’s a prevalent notion, it seems, that as long as the problem is someone else’s fault, there’s no need to allay a citizen’s frustration with a simple acknowledgement that it’s justified.

Art Petty of the Management Excellence blog shares a similar thought: “I don’t hear the phrase 'thank you' used in the workplace nearly enough. It’s two simple words wrapped in one heartfelt comment of appreciation that offers up a whole heaping helping of genuine respect. All of this from one of the first phrases that Mom ever taught us.

“The most creative and successful leaders I know dispense 'Thank You’s' liberally and with gusto. They thank people for their hard work, their creativity and for their service and support. They thank them for pointing out problems and offering solutions and they thank them for providing feedback on how the leader can do his or her job better.”

When we asked B&G Readers to share their experiences with shared services, one of the most useful responses came from a city of about 55,000, whose respondent requested anonymity. He posed four big questions that cities and states should ask themselves when considering this approach:

• Capacity to Deliver: Will assuming more responsibility for another community’s services affect your own community’s ability to sustain its present service levels?

• Realized Cost Savings and/or Benefits Recognized: How will the partnership be a win-win for both partners, and what period of time will be required for both partners to realize a shared benefit?

• Existing Shared Service Agreement Models: Has your entity explored examples of different types of agreements in order to create a model for prospective partners to evaluate for their own unique circumstances?

• Rewards from State and Federal Policy Initiatives: Does legislation exist to promote shared services so partnering communities are rewarded?

California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office just released its long-term fiscal forecast, concluding that the “budget situation has improved sharply.” Congratulations California. But as states begin to see a turnaround in their future, it’s good to be wary. Consider this comment from Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget Project: “Even with this brighter outlook, it's important to remember that many years of deep spending cuts have hit virtually all areas of the budget, from education to health care. With our state just starting to recover from the Great Recession and many families still feeling the effects of the downturn, we need to provide a strong safety net and ensure sufficient funding for key services and supports -- such as child care -- for individuals struggling to find and retain work.

"Moving forward, state policymakers should strive for budget decisions that permanently place the state on solid financial footing while also reinvesting in public systems that are essential to all Californians and to broadly-shared economic growth."