Public Service and the Keepers of Accountability

By Jason Bowns

Bathed in a paradox of criticism and hope, the Inspector General (IG) concept dominates current news headlines. The IG is on America’s mind.

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IG reports may satisfy or verify. Then they become targets of ire at other times when critics claim that the IG has not gone far enough – that it has even failed in its duty.

That duty’s wellspring is the IG Act of 1978, as amended. This enabling legislation created separate Offices of Inspector General (OIGs) within federal departments and agencies, with a shared purpose being “to create independent and objective units” while requiring that IG heads “…shall be appointed by the president, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability…”

OIG duties include “to conduct and supervise audits and investigations relating to the programs and operations,” as well as “to provide leadership and coordination and recommend policies…to promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness…[and] to prevent and detect fraud and abuse.” There’s also a reporting requirement to keep the establishment head and Congress “fully and currently informed about problems and deficiencies…”

By design, OIGs cannot act upon recommendations, which ensures greater independence and objectivity. The power to act is vested with Congress and executive branch leadership.

Frequently, these recommendations remain words on a page. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) scandal attests to that. Despite recent public outcry, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) OIG consistently reported severe appointment scheduling deficiencies for years.

In its July 8, 2005, report – published nearly a decade ago – the OIG found that schedulers did not follow established procedures; medical facilities did not have effective electronic waiting list procedures; and there was no effective training program for schedulers. Recommendations included that the VHA “ensure medical facilities prohibit the use of informal waiting lists.”

Two years later, the VA OIG conducted yet another audit. Its 2007 report concluded, “Schedulers were still not following established procedures for making and recording medical appointments,” adding that “the accuracy of VHA’s reported waiting times could not be relied on and the electronic waiting lists at those medical facilities were not complete.” Five of eight recommendations to address scheduling irregularities were still not fully implemented.

The VA OIG published a report May 18, 2008, focusing on VHA health care facilities in New York and New Jersey. There, the OIG determined that wait times were still inaccurate and misstated, scheduling procedures were not followed, schedulers still maintained informal waiting lists, and lower wait times were linked to VHA management bonuses.

Five of eight recommendations from the 2005 report remained unimplemented and all four recommendations for corrective action relayed by the 2007 report remained unimplemented. The VA undersecretary’s reply was that “holding VISN 3 accountable was counterproductive” because it examined “policy solutions that VHA is already addressing.”

In a 2012 report, the VA OIG found that scheduling data measures were inaccurate and unreliable, performance numbers were overstated, noncompliance with mandatory 14-day scheduling time frames was rampant and schedulers did not consistently follow procedures.

Thus, the VA OIG reported serious and systemic appointment wait time deficiencies for years, sharing its recommendations with the VA secretary and Congress, which hold the power to act.

That fact alone may evoke the words of 19th century British philosopher and parliament member Jon Stuart Mill, “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

Recent news headlines have accused the VA OIG of “softening” its latest fact-finding report into VHA appointment scheduling deficiencies. During hearings in both the House and Senate earlier this month, committee members questioned the VA OIG’s independence, in part because its latest report did not conclusively state that long wait times caused veterans’ deaths.

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In reply, acting VA IG Richard Griffin noted, “The OIG has no authority or responsibility to make determinations as to whether acts or omissions by VA constitute medical negligence under laws of any state…” The IG Act empowers VA OIG to review “programs and operations,” as it did by reporting systemic wait time issues for years. By defending the factual findings and resisting political pressure to exceed its statutory authority, VA OIG exhibits independence.

VA OIG findings also concluded that many schedulers failed to follow published policies. This reinforces how policies on paper, like society’s laws, lack meaning unless individuals choose to heed them. Even when no one else is watching, we’re accountable to ourselves, to our ideals, our principles and our values. Within is where the anti-corruption fight begins – and how it wins.

On July 15, 1944, a wise teenager named Anne Frank wrote that, “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right path, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

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Seven Seriously Succinct Pointers to Avoid Holding a Bad Meeting.

By Robyn-Jay Bage

Bage sept.25A very good friend of mine hates administrators. I mean HATES. As you might imagine (based on my bio), over the years this has made for some very intense (and often intensely funny) conversations.

“Meetings” crown the top of a list of our most frequent discussions. In her esteemed opinion, meetings are usually a considerable waste of time and serve only as opportunities for managers to pretend they actually work for a living. (Remember, I said she hates managers.)

I wouldn’t go that far. However, if I am completely honest with myself I have to admit I’ve attended more than a few meetings—big and small—that should have been better, shorter or never have happened at all.

Fortunately, the Internet is filled with resources offering valuable information about how to hold a good meeting. I offer you an alternative view:

Robyn’s Seven Seriously Succinct Pointers to Avoid Holding a Bad Meeting.

#7 It’s not all about them. Try not to let your meeting get hijacked by one or a few people who seem to think the meeting is just for them. I recall one meeting where the facilitator became so caught up in conversations with two participants that she had her back to the rest of the attendees through most of the meeting.

#6 Time after time. If the meeting is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. that means 2 p.m. for everyone. Don’t waste the time of those who bothered to show up when asked. Start as scheduled and don’t revisit what you’ve already covered. Make appointments for another time to catch up with any latecomers.

#5 Flying “by the seat of your pants” is a recipe for airsickness. Come into your meeting with a specific agenda. Few things make a team more restless than watching you fly around trying to improvise. If you’re not fully prepared, cancel.

#4 Food, glorious food. If you anticipate your meeting to be longer than 90 minutes, provide light refreshments. Adult learners (and children, too) get hungry, thirsty and fidgety when expected to sit and pay attention for long periods. If your meeting is being held during a typical breakfast, lunch or dinner hour, have something more substantial than punch and cookies available even if you can’t provide a meal. For instance, yogurt, granola bars and fruit seem to keep people happy.

#3 Simon says what? Make sure the room’s setup ensures everyone can hear the speaker or meeting facilitator. I attended a meeting recently where half of the attendees could not hear the person speaking. They left after 20 minutes.

#2 Put your left leg in and take your left leg out… A business meeting is no place for the hokey pokey—at least under most circumstances. Make sure there is room, including chairs and table space, for everyone you’ve invited or required to attend.

And finally, the #1 way to avoid holding a bad meeting

If it works in a memo, write one. No one appreciates being “talked at.” If your agenda involves largely one-way communication, you can probably put it in a memo, post it to your portal or send around a companywide email. If there are actual tasks to be done, or decisions to be made, a meeting is the perfect venue.

What went wrong at the worst meeting you’ve ever attended? Curious minds (and aspiring Great Meeting Facilitators) want to know!

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Racial Justice: Is Ferguson the Norm or an Aberration?

By Winnie Eke

The scenes from Ferguson, Missouri were visceral. Decent people could not believe that the free assembly of citizens was met with war-like siege and threat. This show of force did not happen in Nevada, where federal officers were threatened by self-appointed militia?  Why did it happen in Ferguson?

Eke 9.23There is still racial injustice in this country. Blacks are treated like criminals and convicted before trial. For blacks, there appears to be no presumption of innocence as granted by the Constitution. The frequent killing of blacks, by both police officers and citizens, point to the disregard for the black race in spite of their contribution to society.

Police officers are to serve and protect all its citizens. The scene witnessed at Ferguson reminded those of us who were not in the South of the pains inflicted during the civil right marches—attack dogs, water hoses and police brutality. There is an undercurrent that anyone can get away with killing a black person. As Mychal Denzel Smith noted,  many individuals are willing to accept and encourage the injustices and death of many black people.

Is there still hope for racial justice in this country?

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Is Mental Health In The Workplace Ignored?

By Geoff McLennan

McLennan 9.18I just took a short walk on the Riverwalk in West Sacramento. It is a warm day and ahead of me I spotted a young man spinning his baseball cap and talking to nobody. As he passed me, I noticed his legs were dirty, his shoes were worn and he was sunburned. Where was he going and who would care for him?

Mental health has become an incredibly explosive issue in California and other states. Local governments struggle with how to police, track, feed and otherwise respect mentally ill homeless people. My wife reminded me of when the state released over 3,500 mentally ill from a San Francisco Bay Area state mental hospital shuttled in the 1970s. Since then, we have witnessed a gradual increase of the mentally ill in our schools, institutions and bus stations. More recently, we have seen them in the headlines as celebrities and others succumb to depression, schizophrenia and other psychotic illness. Suicide is our loss. As Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, of Columbia University, New York City, recently observed in Medscape: “Ninety percent of people who commit suicide have a preexisting mental illness.” Lieberman also notes, “There are a variety of telltale signs or indicators that suggest that someone may be thinking about suicide.”

When I accepted employment with the government in 1978, the agency I worked for had a psychologist on staff. He was a bearded fellow who had an office on the executive floor. I finally met him after my first experience with conflict in the office. It was pleasant to have someone to talk things over. He eventually arranged for me and the supervisor to meet, shake hands and move beyond the conflict.

Over the years, I heard and indiscriminately shared jokes about “going postal” and other references to anger in the workplace. There were shootings in two state agencies: an irate customer shot a general manager of a housing company and there was the suicide of two retired state executives. Now I look back and chide myself for not being more thoughtful and caring about mental health in the workplace. I miss the staff psychologist at work.

How is mental health addressed in your workplace? Is there a policy, procedure or even a poster? If you or another employee need critical care, do you get an “800” number, a program pamphlet or can you reach a therapist or psychiatrist? Has anyone been arrested and taken away in front of the office?  Do the managers and supervisors know how to recognize telltale signs and the behavior of serious mental illness or is there any training available?

Are we ready to engage mental illness as citizens and employees? Tell me.

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Primum non Nocere – Mantra for ASPA?

By Craig Donovan

On September 11th in 1975, a professor of mine first introduced me to ASPA. I have been reflecting on that this year, how

some things change and how some don’t. I remember that the ‘big’ thing from that year or two was ASPA having a woman president for the first time. It was evidence that ASPA, like America, was changing. Feminism was on the rise and women were taking their place in leadership positions.

Then, most people I saw at ASPA were white. The majority of folks were middle-aged and older men, but it was changing. Many of the younger people had long hair, at least many of the younger men did, while the women were as likely to have a shorter cut as a longer one. No one talked about their sexuality though we flaunted same in our leisure suits and short skirts.

When you went to meetings you saw a lot more faces then than now. Not people, faces. Lacking cell phones to stare at in our laps, we all had to actually look at each other and attempt face-to-face conversations uninterrupted by calls, texts or tweets. Back then, people worried about the future of public administration, the future of ASPA, our declining membership and future revenues.

We were all more behind then in our ‘what’s what’ since the news came on only once in the evening and the only tv shows we could talk about were the ones on the three networks we had seen the night before…no VCRs or DVRs. Work may have piled up but we did not have any emails to check or voicemails to answer. Things seemed a bit more relaxed and peaceful.

Our chapters then were more active. We were just a more social bunch participating in group activities, from ASPA to the Elks, to local bowling leagues. Today, many of our chapters have gone virtual to the extent they meet at all. We seem to have less time even to get together for lunch as we work nearly 24/7 in response to the never-ending electronic onslaught.

I suppose we are more productive today. We can walk and talk and read and write from anywhere, anytime. Sitting at the airport is just as good as sitting at my desk for checking references while preparing for class. We mutlitask, doing all equally poorly.

We may be healthier. No more smoking in restaurants or in the office. We can get a cup of gourmet coffee on every corner, and our foods and restaurants are reviewed in real time in an app. Treadmills and bo-flexes are in our gyms, at home. Our foods are organic, our nutrition is labelled, even as our waists are expanding.

Over the past four decades I have gone from being a student observer to full-fledged (lifetime) member, I have served on chapters and sections, even been on the National Council. We have gone from an American society to an international one. We have added new sections on issues like ethics and LGBT. We are more diverse, more advanced and more inclusive than ever – in some ways.

But the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. While our council has shrunk in size, they still argue and circle around the same issues decade after decade. The wall or war between academics and practitioners still remains and academics still dominate the tenor and voice of the organization. We have ever more competition from other organizations focused on specific professional areas and more challenges from online resources available to those who would be members. Things have not gotten as bad as we had sometimes feared they might, but neither have they really gotten a whole lot better.

I am glad I have not outlived ASPA. There were times we worried it might fade away and no one would notice. The Gala we held at the 2013 conference was a wonderful celebration of the ASPA past (kudos to the organizers!). But I also look back with regret at what we have not done. Public administration is still unknown by most citizens and an afterthought even by our own elected leaders. We still trail the glamour and value given to our business school compatriots. There have been some bright spots and some bright leaders. But just not ceasing to exist is not enough, for me.

For four decades we have seemingly held to the principle, primum non nocere (at first do no harm). I only wish that at an ASPA conference, sometime in the near future so I can be there, we can celebrate just as hard about a wonderful new, re-invented ASPA. One where we did something more, something good: something really, really good. I want to see a time when there is an ASPA that everyone knows and that no one ignores; an ASPA that is making a real difference in the lives of our citizens, schools, and governmental/non-profit entities which we serve now and for the century to come.

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The Decision Making of Public Administrators: Professional Responsibility or Personal Values

By Shirmel Hayden

Shirmel 9.9In light of the recent events that happened in Ferguson, Missouri and have happened all over the world, I thought about the role of public administrators. I thought about a public administrator’s decision-making, specifically how public administrators respond to professional responsibilities. Do personal values interfere with decision-making and responsibilities? More importantly, what is the standard of ethics that are used when decisions must be made?

For the past 10 years, I have noticed that rights have been a challenge and every year I see little change even with conversations about police brutality, school-to-prison pipeline discussions, conferences, workshops, countless research studies, statistics and ongoing advocacy. In 2006, while working on my master’s in public administration at the University of Baltimore, I learned more about civil and human rights. After reading and researching more, I wondered how well these rights implemented are in our society.

Just over the past five years, I have read about unfair sentencing based on race, police brutality in certain communities, mayors involved in public corruption, students pepper sprayed at peaceful demonstrations, minorities in schools being unfairly targeted to the prison pipeline and prisons acting as money making machines with state contracts. I wonder what’s happening. I wonder why the same topics are repeatedly in the news, newspapers and on the Internet. I asked myself, “Is the decision-making of public administrators based on professional responsibility or personal values?”

I have seen the demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, emails, voting drives and peaceful marches. I listen to the voices of people who speak out about inequity and injustices that continue to exist. I hear many of the same words now as I did my childhood: freedom, expression, education, speech, access, due process, equity, equality, discrimination, right to vote, justice, protection among many others. In a world that is ever changing, how do citizens change with times? Should laws change with time? Should rights be updated according to many of the issues that we face today?  How do we hold public administrators accountable for the decision-making that affects citizens? How are people supposed to get their voices out when they are caught in the whirlwind of decision-making that does not always seem to take the ‘professionally responsible’ approach? Is the idea that people just have to live with what maybe “unfair” decision-making? As citizens, how do we trust public administrators?

What I do see is the division between cultures, communities, gender, ideology and distribution of power, personal interest and education. It seems to be really taking a toll on the overall society. What happens when personal values supersede professional responsibility? How do you separate the two? What is the expectation? Am I expecting too much?

 

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The Big Secret

By Thomas I Miller

Meteorologists know that the 10-day weather forecast is so unreliable that being right on Day 10 falls into the category of a miracle. Public health officials can’t say with a straight face that today’s dietary recommendations have legs that will sustain into the next decade. It is said that economists have predicted five of the last two recessions – because the predictive accuracy of the dismal science is, well, dismal. Psychologists don’t really know who will or won’t turn violent. Educators are mindful that paying teachers for performance sounds a lot better than it is. And physicists appreciate that human understanding of the universe sits atop a wobbly foundation because there yet exists no theory of everything to fit the cosmos solidly together.

In fact, experts in every field are aware of the Achilles heels that diminish the certainty of the craft they ply. But experts aver, nevertheless, typically keeping their self-doubts private just as leaders lead even when they don’t know which way to go. So what about pollsters? Uncharacteristically, today, with dark curiosity, we can witness among professionals charged with telling us what we think an unusually public struggle over the secret behind how we know.

I have written recently that the evidence Americans rely on to understand society’s predilections has been based on one kind of public opinion survey method that is under assault. Though mostly unspoken, the primary model for collecting data over the last 40 years – random selection (“probability samples”) of Americans interviewed by telephone – is known by virtually every survey research professional to be unsustainable because phone surveys get ever lower response rates at accelerating costs while attracting people that don’t necessarily represent the general public.

As acclaimed pollster and analyst Nate Silver put it: “there are fewer high-quality polls than there used to be [because]…the cost to commission one can run well into five figures.” Another pollster put it more starkly: “The polling industry is clearly at a crossroads. In 2016, or 2020, telephone surveys may no longer be the prevailing way to measure what the public thinks or how it intends to vote.”

Miller Sept 2In the last week of July, the big secret went viral – at least for the pros in that virtual loop. A salvo by one of the most prestigious research and journalism teams – The New York Times/CBS News poll- vaunted for uncovering opinions the old-fashioned way – caused shock and awe among leaders of the survey research club – The American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR)[1]. The Times/CBS organization announced results from political polling that relied on the opinions of Americans who simply volunteered to be respondents in a Web panel curated by Yougov.

What seemed to some insiders like the abandonment of quality by respected journalists and researchers resulted, about one week later, in a censorious opinion piece by Michael Link, the president of AAPOR. He wrote:

This week, The New York Times and CBS News published a story using, in part, information from a non-probability, opt-in survey sparking concern among many in the polling community. In general, these methods have little grounding in theory and the results can vary widely based on the particular method used.” Link went on to say, “Using information from polls which are not conducted with scientific rigor in effect sets a new — lower — standard for the types of information that other news outlets may now seek to report.”

This official AAPOR viewpoint has created aftershocks among members who think that opt-in Web surveys may be the right direction for learning what the people think and that the association’s scolding commentary was like the whining of buggy whip makers after the Model T rolled out.

Though there were supporters of the association’s position on the AAPOR-net listserve (e.g., “Based on my own experience as a pollster since 1976, none of our studies which allowed self-selection even remotely resembled the target population at large.”), some of the angry posts from members who support opt-in surveys were like these:

The American Association of Public Opinion Research is a justly well-respected organization … That is why the organization’s dismissive official reaction is so disturbing.

 Sadly, AAPOR seems to be turning itself into a lobbying group in support of a certain segment [telephone surveying] of the polling establishment. 

Isn’t it time to get out of the public censuring business? Surely this has gone too far. 

We need AAPOR to be the anchor that grounds our work, not drowns our profession.

The publicly discussed weaknesses of traditional survey research already are spawning innovations that refashion how we know. While the retooling is in progress, we get to witness this uncommon open battle to make one professional secret obsolete. In the coming years as data collection turns from only telephone to a combination of phone, opt-in Web surveys, paid panels, smartphone texting, listed emails, tweeting, U.S. Postal Service mail or drone interviewers (my idea), the secret of low response rates and the misalignment of people in survey samples with people in general will surely be replaced with new polling secrets, yet to be discovered.


[1] Full disclosure, this author is a member.

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