B&G Report: Building Accountability in Education, Remembering the Digital Divide and More

All the public-sector management news you need to know.
November 7, 2013 AT 5:00 PM

Homelessness is one of those problems that afflict most large American cities. Solutions are elusive, to some extent because city budgets don’t seem to hold the resources necessary to address this population. But Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor Richard Berry has pushed forward a program called Albuquerque Heading Home, which he told us he believes to be the “right way to do the smart thing.”

The program, which began in 2011, provides housing for the most medically vulnerable men and women who are victims of chronic homelessness. The idea behind this is simple: For people who require expensive city-provided medical care, it can be far cheaper to provide a roof over their heads than a hospital bed. About 250 people have enrolled in the program. A recent cost-benefit analysis from the University of New Mexico showed that this initiative has resulted in a 31.6 percent savings in overall costs. As the mayor told us, “The community is behind it. It’s not just Mayor Berry’s program any more. The nonprofit sector is buying into it.”

On the front page of the website of the Rhode Island General Assembly, there’s a link to agency annual reports -- a bit of guidance that we appreciate. But when we clicked on the link, we were surprised by how old some of these annual reports are. Of the approximately 50 agencies/programs listed on the website, only six had 2012 annual reports. In fact, more than half the annual reports were for 2008 or before and 19 were for 2005 or 2006. (For six others, the links were broken.) Aren’t annual reports supposed to be annual?

The Indiana Department of Education recently issued a short report focusing on promoting accountability in education. The report includes an intriguing list of “policy needs” for a successful accountability system. Here are a few of them:

  • Transparency and communication are key to defining, developing, and implementing a successful accountability system. Education stakeholders should be engaged in the product lifecycle to ensure success.
  • There must be a balance between statistical validity and simplicity. Increased use of data points for statistical validity will increase the system complexity. A reduction of data points will simplify the system but could compromise the integrity of the calculations.
  • Independent data components should be calculated and reported separately to ensure transparency and trust in calculations.

Tourists apparently aren't keen on visiting monuments. But they love historic sites. This bit of wisdom comes from a study done by the New Mexico Cultural Affairs Department. As a result, the state changed the name of its State Monuments Division to the State Historic Sites and Monuments Division. What’s more, places once known as monuments (Coronado, Fort Selden and Fort Stanton, for example) are now all dubbed historical sites.

We’re going to give the state a call in a year or so, and see how these changes affected attendance.

Here’s a rather stunning factoid, uncovered by the New York State Comptroller’s office. Apparently one in four dollars of real property in the state is exempt from county, city or town property taxes. That comes to some $680 billion in exempt properties, including parcels owned by the government; nonprofits, such as churches and universities; and exemptions like the state’s School Tax Relief Program, which reduces school taxes for people who meet certain age or income requirements.

According to Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, in a press release, “In an era of limited resources, the impact of property tax exemptions complicates the financial picture of our local governments . . . Local leaders will need to continue to find creative ways to offset these exemptions and must carefully weigh any decision to offer new exemptions.”

There’s much for cities to learn from Baltimore’s results-based budgeting approach. We recommend that you take a look at this well-wrought synopsis by the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

We were particularly intrigued by some of the concrete benefits of Baltimore’s system. For example, according to the piece, “The Fire and Health departments now assign nurses to frequent 911 callers and this has reduced their call volume by about 50 percent. This has resulted in substantial savings.”

When was the last time you heard the phrase "digital divide?" As you’ll recall, the concern referred to by that two-word phrase was that America was divided into two segments; those who had easy access to computers and the Internet, and those who didn’t. But in recent years, especially as a number of governmental services are being efficiently offered through the Internet -- and input into states and city policies is being offered online -- there seems to be a growing presumption that everybody’s got a neat little keyboard and monitor someplace in their home.

That could be a particularly hazardous assumption in some places. True, a growing number of libraries give free computer access, but in terms of having home-based Internet, a recent brief from the Pennsylvania State Data Center points to the great range that exists.

As the report indicates, "New Hampshire led all states in the United States with 87.1 percent of its residents 3 years and over reporting in-home Internet use in 2011, followed by Washington (86.1 percent), Utah (84.7 percent) and Connecticut (84.4 percent). Minnesota (83.9 percent) rounded out the top five in terms of percent of population with Internet access at home. Mississippi (61.4 percent), New Mexico (65.8 percent) and Arkansas (68.5 percent) were among the states with the lowest reported percentages of in-home Internet access. Nationally, 76.5 percent of the population lived in a household with Internet access. "

"You cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” -- Steve Jobs at the 2005 Stanford University commencement.

When a natural disaster hits, communities are faced with a pair of choices, according to Stephen Hardy, chief community builder at MindMixer. One route in the fork of this particular road is to get the community back to status quo as quickly as possible. The other is to consider the need for tons of rebuilding as an opportunity to create a better place than existed before the earthquake, hurricane, whatever.

Though he doesn’t indicate that there’s always one right route, “there’s something about a disaster that can help big things happen,” says Hardy, whose company helps communities get input from citizens and other stakeholders when making the difficult decisions that follow acts of God. “These are gut-wrenching moments,” he says, “and it’s really tough on elected officials.”

Thank you, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. We’re grateful for your online database that allows “meaningful comparisons of city finances -- from spending on schools, police and public works to revenues from the property tax and other sources,” according to a release.

It’s called the Fiscally Standardized City database, and includes data for over 100 large U.S. cities in about 120 categories. What’s more, the database covers 33 years, from 1977 to 2010, with plans to add additional years.

The kind of analysis this makes possible is what we hunger for -- and we know we’re not alone. Want to compare long-term debt issued for highways for three California cities? It’s there. How about corrections expenditures per capita for three more? That’s there too. And the utility doesn’t end there. If your goal is to see if there are correlations between various fiscal elements -- like expenditures per capita on libraries and public safety in six cities -- you can do it.