The Reality of Being Sick, Job Piracy and Smart Pension Moves

Plus: how a transit authority transformed itself and more management news
by | February 7, 2013

Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene

Government management experts. Their website is

In theory, managers want workers to stay home when they think they have the flu. But when government workers have overwhelming workloads -- as is often the case -- are they really encouraged to stay home in order to keep others healthy, or is there a mixed message? Tell us your experiences, please.

Kudos to San Jose, Calif., for its excellent “service efforts and accomplishments” report that came out in December. We think it’s certainly worth reviewing by other entities interested in informing policymakers, citizens and others about what their government is doing -- and how well it’s doing it.

For due diligence, we decided to run San Jose’s report past Jay Fountain, whose work at the Governmental Accounting Standards Board provided many of the foundations for these reports (he’s now a member of the Board of Representatives for Stamford, Conn.). He agreed with us that this was an excellent report but also suggested a couple of improvements that could have been made: “They could use a few more actual performance indicators of results [and] it would be interesting to have comparisons to targets for the measures,” he told us.

“What states euphemistically call ‘business recruitment’ is often nothing more than the pirating of jobs by one state from another,” write the authors of an important new report from Good Jobs First. The report goes on to say that, “This piracy is bankrolled by property, sales and income tax breaks’ land and infrastructure subsidies, low-interest loans, ‘deal-closing’ grants, and other subsidies to footloose companies.”

To a great extent, the report -- which Governing has summarized -- focuses on job piracy between states that are geographically close to one another.

Consider one of the report’s many examples: “In the Kansas City metro area, companies have been getting eight-figure subsidy packages to move from the Missouri side to Kansas, or vice versa. A group of prominent business leaders spoke out publicly against the wasteful process, but still it continues.”

This kind of thing is all too common, and Good Jobs First does a very good job at laying out the territory and making recommendations. This is important stuff.

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An unbalanced balanced budget. Not so long ago, politicians in California were excited to announce that the governor had released a balanced budget. That certainly sounds like good news. But, as Dan Pellissier, president of California Pension Reform wrote in the Sacramento Bee, “the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office confirmed that the plan does not include any money to make full payments for teachers' pensions and state employee retiree health costs. With the state carrying about $180 billion in debt for retiree benefits, it is like celebrating a touchdown after reaching the 50-yard line.”

"What is leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretense that the decision was based on reason?" -- Robert Harris in his book, Pompeii.

Starting in August, West Virginia’s state Supreme Court will begin mandating all felons to take a test to measure their risks and needs before being sentenced.

This is an already mandated part of a proposed overhaul of the state’s corrections system that has the potential to save West Virginia some $340 million over ten years. The state hopes to assess offenders to make sure it doesn’t overspend on their incarceration; carefully supervise them once released; and strengthen community-based efforts to avoid recidivism, among other reforms.

Of course, nobody can be sure that all the savings will materialize. But based on what we know about corrections, these are the right kind of approaches to reach such big savings.

The state legislature will start to review these recommendations in February. They emanate from research requested by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, conducted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in partnership with the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Smart move. Last April, two Rhode Island cities -- North Providence and East Providence -- each received a $60 million windfall. They came into this serious money thanks to assisting a U.S. Justice Department investigation into “online advertisements distributed by Google for Canadian pharmacies illegally marketing prescription drugs to Americans,” according to Pensions & Investments.

The details of the windfall aren’t what intrigue us, though. It’s the way the cities used them. The funds were initially intended for spending purposes like training or facilities. But the two cities had other ideas. They applied to the Justice Department for a waiver that would allow them to use some of their cash to help fund their law enforcement pension plans. They got the waiver, and that’s just what they’ve done.

This is, we think, a perfect use of one-time money.

Regular B&G readers know that we think one of the biggest reasons for lack of faith in government is that many taxpayers simply don’t understand it. That’s why there’s a well-worn groove in the soapbox we stand on when we talk about civics education.

With that in mind, we were pleased to read in the New Hampshire Union Leader about a bill that would ensure that so-called Constitution Day (Sept. 17) be used in the way the U.S. Department of Education originally envisioned -- as a day for schools receiving federal funding to teach the Constitution. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Glen Cordelli, found that the amount of education many New Hampshire students receive about the Constitution is minimal at best. We suspect this is true in other states. “If we can better educate our children about Constitutional rights and responsibilities, our nation will be strengthened,” he said.

The details of the bill need to be ironed out, with representatives calling for more specifics. And of course, a single day of this kind of education doesn’t sound like a lot (in fact, it sounds like way too little) but progress is progress -- even if it’s slow.

A book with a title like Driving Excellence usually just makes us want to drive away. But Mark Aesch’s book on transforming an organization’s culture is excellent. He draws on his time as the former CEO of the Rochester (N.Y.) Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, and the book has a great deal of very specific detail about its transformation -- a deficit turned into a surplus, a hostile union climate into a much improved one and more.

We chatted with Aesch, who is now president of TransPro, a consulting firm that works with state and local governments, and asked him to pull out what he thinks are the three most important actions he took to transform the transit system.

1. Define success at the beginning . “It’s a fallacy that we can be good at everything,” says Aesch. In Rochester, he picked fare stability and “a high-quality customer experience” as the two stand-out issues that would lead to success.

2. Keep score. It’s important that the measurements that you keep align with how you’ve decided to define your success. Measuring performance is most effective when you weigh different elements differently, Aesch says. In keeping with that philosophy, bus cleanliness wasn’t weighted as heavily as on-time performance, which went from 76 percent to 91 percent in six years.

3. "You need courage in decisionmaking," he says. If a project isn't going well, don’t be afraid to drop it.


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