Underreported News, a Risk to Public Health and Savings without Sacrificing Service

Plus: a guide for successful collaboration and more management news
by | January 24, 2013

Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene

Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

"Our focus for the past 42 years has been on trying to get out from under the federal court orders,” Jackie Graham, Alabama’s state personnel director told us earlier this month.

And now, here’s the good news, which received surprisingly little -- if any -- attention in the press, despite its huge significance for the state: As of Nov. 30, the 1970 court order that required Alabama to address its problems with racial discrimination has been dropped for the whole state with the exception of two of its environmental agencies. According to court documents, those agencies will have the court order dropped automatically in two years.

This didn’t come easy, but the state’s efforts have sure paid off. When the federal suit was first brought in 1968, less than one percent of the state’s workforce was black. As of 2011, some 41 percent of the workforce is.

“We are proud of how far the state has come,” said Graham, who seems absolutely delighted at the amount of staff time -- much of it used on “busy work” -- that will be saved.


Here’s something that annoys us. We may be more focused than others on items like the preceding, but it surprised us that we found so little in the press about the lifting of a decades-old federal court order in Alabama. Our impression was confirmed by the state’s personnel director. Not that this event necessarily merited front-page national coverage, but you could be a careful reader of the press and never know it happened.

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In writing about budgetary management, we’re always very careful not to bemoan specific cuts. There are too many value judgments involved in decisions about what a government should be providing its citizens, but now we’re breaking that general self-imposed restriction. We agree entirely with a recent piece published in Kaiser Health News. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

“One aspect of moderating health expenditures -- and the only category showing outright decline -- could cost more than it saves. Hit by recession and tight budgets, spending on public health by federal, state and local governments fell in 2011 for the first time since analysts started tracking the numbers in 1960.”

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, cautions: “Public health is adaptable, but the resource reductions now have been so substantial that it truly does put the public’s health at risk. I’m usually a little reluctant to say that, but we’re at that point.”

"Good players don’t forecast the future, but adapt to it." -- the Farnam Street blog.

The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel recently fretted about that city’s decision to make its biggest no-bid contract in history. The $8.7 million deal for software was signed in November with a California company. In fairness, there’s no reason to believe that this wasn’t the best deal available to the city, but this is an awful lot of money to go through a no-bid process. At the state level, any contract over $250,000 is required to be put out to bid.

In any event, the Sentinel’s argument makes a lot of sense: “Only a bidding process would have confirmed that [the] software was the best deal -- the right combination of quality and price -- for Orlando. … taxpayers deserve more due diligence from public officials. That's why governments routinely solicit bids from vendors, and employ staff to evaluate them, before awarding contracts.”

On a similar front in Florida, we just came across a fascinating dichotomy in the state’s transparency laws, thanks to The Miami Herald. Apparently, the state’s strict contracting laws apply only to the executive branch -- and not the Legislature.

According to the newspaper, “There are nearly 33,400 contracts listed on the chief financial officer's website with data on who gets paid for them and how much each vendor collects from taxpayers. The Legislature does not list any of its contracts on the public site.”

Makes you wonder...

"Many of the problems and opportunities confronting local areas don’t respect city or county lines,” write the authors of a new National League of Cities (NLC) publication called “Getting Things Done Together.” “In this situation, solving problems and seizing opportunities require people, organizations, and government entities to work together across sectors and jurisdictional boundaries to get things done.”

There’s a solid and well-accepted case to be made for that statement, but the gap between the vision and actual implementation can be as big as the Grand Canyon. That’s why we encourage managers interested in regionalization to take a look at the NLC report, which is essentially a workbook that provides counsel and clear guidance. According to Bill Barnes, NLC’s director of emerging issues, the reaction to the workbook “has been quite positive.” No surprise there.

Savings without sacrificing service? It’s not easy for cities and counties to do, but the Urban Institute is publishing a series of three reports that identify cost-savings based on actual government experiences that do not sacrifice service quality. Sound good?

Well, we can tell you that the first report -- which focuses on savings that police departments have made by reducing their responses to house or business alarms that turn out not to be caused by criminal activity -- is riveting. One example of the potential here is Montgomery County, Md., which the report estimates “is saving about $6 million a year using a set of approaches that reduced police responses to false alarms by 60 percent.” Seattle had similar success, and the city is saving about $1.7 million a year. Salt Lake City, meanwhile, instituted a far more rigorous vetting process to filter out false alarms and reduced police responses to them by a remarkable 95 percent.

Some of the approaches discussed and analyzed in the report include licensing and registration of alarm companies and users; vetting of alarm companies before notifying the police; fining for false alarms; requiring more sophisticated alarm system technology; and offering user education.

Can anyone help us understand the epidemic of the use of the word "iconic"? It seems like any big building or celebrity is now "iconic” -- but that's not really what caught our interest. We've noticed that the media is describing almost every big American city as iconic. We looked the word up, and it seems to mean something that represents a particular idea, and we can't really think of a big city that doesn't do that.


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