The Limits of Bill Gates' Influence, a Formula for Change and Honorable Contracting Reform

Plus: why Portland, Ore., may no longer be a leader in transit planning and more management news
by | February 21, 2013

Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene

Government management experts. Their website is

When Bill Gates speaks, people listen. Or do they?

Most of you are likely aware of his recent comments, a portion of which went like this: “In the past year I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward the goal.”

So, here’s our question: When a private-sector luminary like Gates makes a widely viewed remark like this, does it really do anything to alter thinking in the public sector? Or, despite Gates’ prominence, is it just more fodder for the ever-passing array of Tweets?

“Is there a way, before starting out on a change process, to know how much change the community will accept?” asks the remarkably prolific local-government guru Otis White. His first answer is that there isn’t a sure way because much luck is involved. But he also shares one approach -- a formula that we think is very thought-provoking -- and it goes like this: Change = D x M x P. D is equal to “dissatisfaction with the status quo;” M equals “a model or vision of how things could work if the issues were fully resolved;” and P stands for “a plan for getting to that vision.” White tells us that he first learned about this notion from the head of corporate education at a large Atlanta-based utility.

This appears in our free Management newsletter. Not already a subscriber? Click here.

Of course, there’s a lot more detail involved, which White has explained on his blog, but we’ve found that the more you think about it, and the more you refine the meanings of the individual elements, the more it makes sense.

Saving Energy. A number of counties are trying to save significant amounts of cash with relatively small investments aimed at cutting back on energy use, according to a new study by the National Association of Counties and the Institute for Building Technology and Safety.

One key message of the report: “Counties cannot properly manage their energy consumption without first measuring their energy use.

While many counties have already taken the initiative to track energy in their buildings, many lack a centralized resource to compare their facilities to each other, to similar building types across the country, and to the same facility over time.”

A couple of weeks ago, we asked B&G readers to tell us whether, in their experience, employees were encouraged to stay home when sick. This seemed particularly pertinent thanks to the flu epidemic.

We weren’t besieged by answers but those we received were enlightening, and our biggest takeaway from the limited sample is that although employers vary in their approach, many create an ethos of “come to work -- no matter what.” Below are a few of the responses (most wanted to remain anonymous) that we received. We’re still curious about this topic, so if you have something to add, please email us at

  • “I can assure you that upper-level government workers are most certainly NOT encouraged to take sick time when they are sick.” -- a municipal clerk in New Jersey
  • “As a government manager for over 30 years, I’ve always contended that it’s not only my right but my duty to protect my healthy workers from their sick colleagues. I tell all new hires that if they are sick and come to work, I will (and I have) send them home.” -- a government manager in Boise, Idaho
  •  “There is no mixed message about it. You are expected to come to work no matter what.” -- a state government manager in the mid-Atlantic
  • “If you miss work, you get dinged on your review because you missed work … sounds like a setup for failure to me; and this is the employers ‘out’ for not giving a decent increase (if you have one coming).” -- a purchasing official in the Midwest

"Being a professional is doing the things you love to do even on the days you don't feel like doing them." -- retired National Basketball Association player Julius Erving

Imagine how you would feel if your house was severely damaged by a hurricane and then you got a property tax bill from your city indicating that its value had gone up. Now you get the picture for many New Yorkers who suffered just that ignominy after Hurricane Sandy.

Of course, the city didn’t really think that a missing roof added to the outdoorsy attraction of a home. The re-evaluations had been reportedly set before the hurricane hit, making it less of a big deal. But it is the kind of relatively small oversight that can (and seems to have started to) damage the city’s relationship with its taxpayers.

Forecasts are dubious propositions at best. Nobody has a functional crystal ball, and there are lots of reasons why expenditure or revenue forecasts can come out awry. It’s our bet, for example, that Connecticut is going to have all kinds of missed forecasts this year thanks to the combination of Hurricane Sandy and Blizzard Nemo. You can’t blame the state for that.

Sometimes, though, there are other less-acceptable reasons for these problems -- one of which was uncovered in a recent Oregon audit. The investigation, according to the secretary of state’s audit report, was undertaken to see “if adequate independence, oversight and transparency existed” in caseload-based expenditures provided for budgeting purposes.

One of the major findings: “We found agency management had influenced the caseload estimate for the Aid to the Blind and Disabled program for the spring 2011 forecast … In addition, we found the growth rate assumed for this forecast was not justified and also contributed to the inaccuracy of the forecast.”

The caseloads utilized were greater than was actually the case, which leads to surpluses. About half of the $43 million in general fund surplus was the result of usual variance. About $4 million came from “the influence of senior management” and another $19 million from an “unjustified growth rate.” This is no way to budget.

When people ask us to name well-managed cities, we nearly always mention Portland, Ore., which is why we were startled to see a new auditor’s report that points out a potentially serious problem in the city. Portland -- often cited as a leader in transportation -- is making transportation decisions with demonstrably inadequate planning, according to the auditor’s report.

The audit reported “that the City has no long-term plan to reconcile competing transportation priorities. As a result, new transportation projects have displaced core services such as maintaining streets. We recommend that the City Council adopt an overall transportation strategy to identify how it plans to balance preservation of existing infrastructure against new transportation development.”

A cheer from the crowd for Florida’s chief financial officer, Jeff Atwater. According to the Herald-Tribune, he’s making it a high priority to reform the state’s contracting system and has not only asked for legislation mandating compliance audits before they’re signed but also post-contract audits to make sure the contract has actually delivered on its promises.

It’s just a guess but we’d think that when the Richmond City Council asked for more information about an $18 million IT project, members thought they’d get some answers pretty quickly.

Not so, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. According to the paper’s Jan. 31 edition, “At a meeting of the council’s Audit Committee on Tuesday, City Auditor Umesh Dalal said his auditors had been unable to get access to information, people and the system itself ‘in a timely manner.’”

There may well be justifications for delays (and some of them may be perfectly rational), but we have to admit to a bias in favor of a city council wanting to know everything it can about an IT project -- as quickly as it can.


More from Columns