Twitter Tips, Aging IT Workers, Book Recommendations and More
A roundup of public-sector management news you need to know.
Do you, or your government, use Twitter to get information out to the public? Researchers at Cornell University have developed an algorithm that may help you be more successful. They offer a number of easy-to-follow recommendations including use the word “please,” convey an opinion, use third person pronouns and keep the tweet as easy to read as possible.
But here’s the really cool part: If you’re sending out an important tweet, simply go to a website they’ve set up, and it will allow you to compare two ways to phrase a tweet and tell you which one people are more likely to retweet.
One of the most successful uses of data in cities and states has been so called Performance-Stat programs, in which a high-level leader holds subordinates accountable to measurable goals. The San Francisco Controller’s Office recently prepared a very useful case study about a public works program there that follows this model.
There's lots of evidence of ways DPWStat has improved service. For example, it's accelerated the speed in which graffiti is removed and assured more equity, from neighborhood to neighborhood, in street cleaning.
The report also offers good advice for organizations that want to start similar programs. This includes the critical importance of having regular meetings to discuss results, the buy-in of executive leadership, a cadre of dedicated data analysts on staff, the wisdom of starting with a limited number of services, easily understood metrics, and easily interpreted data visualizations that help answer "how many, where, how fast, compared to what" questions.
“Man is the only animal that laughs and has a state legislature.” -- Samuel Butler, English novelist
Does the development of a government budget require too many resources? That's a question the Portland, Ore., audit office recently explored as it delved into the city's budget to find inefficiencies and room for improvement.
Auditors came up with a plethora of complaints from bureau directors who question whether the many submissions they're required to make each year actually get read and digested by decision makers. Reformers put in place many of the requirements -- including varying ways to solicit public input and requirements to submit performance information -- to guide better decisions. But they don't have the impact once envisioned, sometimes because implementation was half-hearted or because efforts to tie the budget to performance stalled.
Some of the problems cited by the auditors come down to timing issues. If the city council and mayor don't agree on priorities during the fall, it's hard for bureaus to use them in budget planning. Similarly, auditors found that many of the actions city bureaus take to prepare for the budget occur before annual instructions come out from the city budget office.
Perhaps most striking, some bureaus complained to auditors that the time required to prepare their annual budget submissions has simply grown to be overwhelming. "Some bureaus spend up to 10 months to develop a budget that will be in use for 12 months," said the audit, which made several recommendations to streamline the process. These include a two-year budget, the formation of clearer and earlier council/mayor priorities, better communication with budget advisory councils about their role in the process, improvement and clarification of performance measures and a weeding out of required budget documents to eliminate submissions that are redundant or of questionable value.
We know that states and cities have difficulty getting young people into their IT workforce, but we were wondering why this was the case. These seem like pretty good jobs in many ways. In government circles, they tend to get better pay than many others, and their occupants tend to be treated with respect by many other employees who see the skills required as far out of their grasp.
We asked Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, why he thought finding these types of employees was an issue. He had a particularly interesting theory. He told us that as much as 75 percent of states’ IT budgets are spent on legacy systems. That makes it difficult to recruit young workers who haven’t been trained on that antiquated hardware and software. And good potential employees don’t want to work with such outdated technology. As a result, the average age of state IT workers has now reached 49.
Localities faced with a cash shortage “seem to focus on reducing expenses, ignoring the opportunities to pick up revenues that are already on the books,” Bob Segal, president of Segal Revenue and Expense Specialists, told us in a recent conversation. Segal pointed out that in states where counties collect property taxes both for themselves and for municipalities, it’s not uncommon for localities to miss out on revenues due them, even though the counties are collecting on the same sites. Segal’s company goes out in search of that kind of missing income, and though it’s a relatively small outfit, his experiences are probably representative of a widespread phenomenon.
When he was visiting in a small town of about 1,500, for example, he was busily going through records in search of properties that were going untaxed. “And I hear a train go by the window,” he recalls. “But there were no train tracks listed as taxable property for the city.” It turned out that the railroad had never paid property tax on about 2.5 miles of double track, which counts like five miles of track. “The city was 50-some years old,” says Segal. “The tracks had been there for longer than the town, and the county was getting its money, but not the town.”
A book recommendation for government managers: Best Practices in Data Cleaning: A Complete Guide to Everything You Need to Do Before and After Collecting Your Data, by Jason Osborne. Recommended by Melissa Cater, assistant professor at Louisiana State University, who reports, “it’s a very practical user friendly book.” See past book recommendations here.
One way states have tried to do a better job saving money for their corporations has been reforming their workers' compensation systems. But, like most trends, there are wrinkles that aren’t evident on the face of the matter, according to a recent report by ProPublica, which did an in-depth study of the topic that explored insurance industry data, state laws, medical and court records.
Over the last dozen years, 33 states passed workers’ compensation laws to reduce benefits and raise the bar for inclusion on the list. Among ProPublica’s findings are that states vary widely in terms of their payments for similar medical problems. For example, in Alabama, compensation for loss of an eye tops out at $27,280; while that number is $261,525 in Pennsylvania.
The research also found that efforts to cut back on workers' comp costs haven’t been restricted to reimbursements, but to time limits. As the report says: “They’ve also cut them off after an arbitrary time limit -- even if workers haven’t recovered.” What’s more, apparently employers and insurers are increasingly in a position to determine what kind of medical care workers' comp payments can be used for, including the decision of whether a worker needs surgery or not.
For some years, we’ve been advocating public ratings of a variety of institutions in order to improve quality. We’ve never denied that such ratings can be full of anomalies and flaws, but we’ve always stuck to the notion that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
But thanks to a thoughtful report on National Public Radio, we’ve added a codicil; the inconsistent is also the enemy of the good. The NPR piece points to four nationally known raters of hospitals: Consumer Reports, U.S. News & World Report, the Leapfrog Group and HealthGrades. And here’s the problem: “844 hospitals came out as a high performer on at least one of the ratings scales. But the researchers found that no hospital -- not one -- came out as a high performer in all four ratings systems. In fact, only 10 percent of hospitals rated as a high performer by one group were rated as a high performer by another.”