Entries by Steve Poftak

Carmen Ortiz is Making Beacon Hill Nervous

Think you’ve had a tense few weeks at work? Consider potential targets of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s probe into wrongdoing at the state’s Probation Department. The Globe Spotlight Team and the Ware Report detailed the madness, absurdity, and outright corruption of the Probation Department. It’s tough to do it justice in a few words — rigged hiring, pay-to-play promotions, alleged quid pro quo between department leaders and legislators, and on and on. On January 17, the Globe reported that the US Attorney’s office had “essentially completed their investigation” and indictments were imminent. Given the number of legislators mentioned prominently in the Ware Report, this had to be cause for concern. Tick, tick, tick. Still waiting. Ten days later, the Lowell […]

The Weakest Link?

Like most places, Massachusetts uses elections to insure accountability in government. Don’t like how things are being run? Vote’em out. So, it’s interesting to note that some of the most egregious breakdowns in public accountability over the past few years have occurred in that netherworld between bureaucrats and elected officials — the board of directors. To be sure, the private sector has struggled with how to insure the accountability of boards of directors, but the public sector seems to be far behind in this area. What are the key indicators of weak governance? Review the peformance of the Essex Country Regional Retirement Board, the Chelsea Housing Authority Board, and the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative Board. In each case, a board […]

Meet the Transportation Dashboard

How well did the Patriots do this weekend? That’s easy. Look at the scoreboard. How well has the state spent your tax dollars since the enactment of transportation reform? Well, that’s harder. There’s some reports that highlight the changes in management structure and some of the cost savings. But what about the things that really matter to the customer. Some of those measures are in a .pdf file on the MassDOT website, if you know where to look. (And the MBTA actually is a bit more forward with their data.) Pioneer thinks something bolder, more public, and customer-focused is needed. Using simple desktop tools, we put together a transportation dashboard with public data. It’s far from perfect, but we hope […]

9 Keys For Reality TV Chefs

(What, you think we can only do policy?) There’s been a proliferation of reality cooking shows — Top Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, Iron Chef, Chopped, and so on — as well as spinoffs and brand extensions. For those aspiring chefs seeking to success on these shows, some pointers: 1. Always cook something. Seems obvious, but every competition has some person who makes a crudo or carpacchio. It’s not a slicing-and-marinating competition, folks; you need to cook. 2. Never do a duo. The indecisive or overly ambitious chef will decide to take a main ingredient and go for multiple preparations on a single plate. The problem is that you are competing against yourself — one preparation is going to be better than […]

Beacon Hill Budget Games

I’m a bit perplexed at the latest round of expectation-setting from Beacon Hill regarding the FY2013 budget. First, it turns out we still have a structural deficit. But, didn’t the Governor tell us that the FY12 budget “eliminates the structural deficit I inherited from my predecessors”. And MTF President Mike Widmer came close to concurring, noting the near elimination of the structural deficit. Now, we find out there’s a $550 million structural gap. (Plus the cost of pushing out the pension fund, but that’s a bit harder to understand.) Working from MassBudget’s curiously well-informed preview of the FY13 Governor’s Budget, I next learn that the Consensus Revenue Estimate says we’ll have an additional $840 million in available funds for the […]

Budgeting Innovation?

If you deal with budgets regularly, you know the pain of trying to get through those last final steps of balancing spending and revenue to the penny. But our friends at the State House may have delivered a new innovation — the negative expenditure. What’s that? It’s a spending account with a negative number, which has the virtue of canceling out actual spending. If you download the FY12 budget line items from the state’s website, you find an account — 1599-0015 Intergovernmental Secretariat Budget Team Savings Reserve — with an amount of -$25 million attached to it. That account doesn’t exist in the budget the Legislature posted on-line nor does it exist on the initial detail page on the State […]

Can the MBTA Learn From Germany?

Participate in the transportation conversation long enough and you hear a familiar refrain: Why can’t we be more like Europe? Europe being shorthand for an enlightened land of high-speed rail, pervasive bike use, and public transit everywhere. (There’s notable less interest in the widespread use of private concessionaires for roadways, but that’s another post.) With the MBTA’s current financial struggles in mind, a recent study by two scholars — Ralph Buehler from VPI and John Pucher from Rutgers University — of the German public transit system yields some interesting results. During a period where US transit systems expanded their coverage area faster than ridership, German systems reduced their coverage area while seeking to increase ridership on higher volume routes. They […]

Odds-On Favorite? Not the Lottery

The Massachusetts state lottery has made news the past few weeks for two things — a $20 holiday raffle that lost money and a proposal to allow gamblers to use their debit cards to buy tickets. The stories might seem only vaguely related but, at root, they highlight the Mass Lottery’s ongoing challenge — sustaining revenue levels and trying to grow in a stagnant market. And that market is going to get more crowded once casinos start operating, with expert opinions forecasting a 5 – 10% drop in lottery revenues initially. As previous studies have shown, Massachusetts has one of the most successful lotteries in the country, particularly on a per capita basis. But it has been difficult work keeping […]

MBTA Puts the Screws to Bus Riders

The MBTA released two scenarios to deal with a projected FY13 budget deficit of $161 million. Scenario 1 fills the gap with close to 80% fare increases and 20% service cuts. Scenario 2 roughly splits the difference between service cuts and fare increases. A quick review of the impact study tells me that Scenario 1 is the one that the MBTA wants. And that the ire of the public will quickly be focused on Scenario 2. Scenario 2 proposes a radically trimming of bus operations, eliminating 23.6% of bus trips and reducing ridership by about the same amount. The T’s bus system could use some consolidation and a greater focus on increasing throughput, but that’s a pretty big pill to […]

Introduction to the Massachusetts Transportation Dashboard

Pioneer’s Transportation Dashboard is intended to communicate the performance of the state’s transportation system and inform the public about the effectiveness of the state’s transportation leadership. As a single-page of primarily visual communication, it necessarily simplifies the complex nature of the transportation system.

Filling the Red Kettle

The Salvation Army is struggling to raise money this year through its traditional red kettle/bell-ringing campaign, with donations down 22%. It might be due to a down economy. I know that my dependence on electronic transactions frequently leaves me without bills or coins to donate. But new economic research suggests strategies to increase donations. A team of economists conducted a four day experiment at a Boston-area supermarket using two different approaches to the red kettle campaign. The first approach was passive — just bell-ringing, no speaking, no eye contact. The second was active — bell-ringing plus a direct ask for a donation. The result? People avoid being asked verbally (as opposed to the implicit, passive ask that the presence of […]

Tim Tebow, the Read Option and Our Patriots

(What? I have to do policy wonk stuff all the time?) Tim Tebow is all the rage right now, both for his spectacular late game comebacks and his very public professions of his faith. We’ll leave the latter alone and focus on his actions on the field. His team, the Denver Broncos, turned to Tebow after a 1-4 start running a conventional offense under Kyle Orton. Over time, the Broncos have implemented a modified read-option offense that is built around the running and decision-making skills of Tebow. For the uninitiated, the read-option is based around the counter-intuitive notion of not blocking at least one defender. That unblocked defender is then ‘read’ by the quarterback/ballcarrier, if the unblocked defender commits to […]

Boston’s Struggle With 3rd Grade Reading

Achieving reading proficiency by 3rd Grade is a vital skill, closely correlated with important measures of academic achievement later. As one major study found: – One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do notgraduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers… – For children who were poor for at least a year and were not reading proficiently in third grade, the proportion that don’t finish school rose to 26 percent. That’s more than six times the rate for all proficient readers… – Graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students who were not proficient readers in third grade lagged far behind those for White students with the same […]

Our Old Friend Film Tax Credits

There’s a state commission that’s currently examining all the so-called “tax expenditures” that the state offers. The commission has said it wants to review the collection of tax expenditures and eliminate those that don’t make sense. Its also held out the possibility of a eliminating a number of targeted credits in exchange for a zero-sum cut to the overall tax rate (an outcome to be hoped for). May I nominate one expenditure to make? The Film Tax Credit. These credits have been controversial from the get-go. Proponents point to growth in employment due to the credits. Opponents counter that any industry receiving millions in tax credits would likely see some improvement. Its also a relatively small number of jobs (~5,000 […]

Taking Commuter Rail In-House?

Bad idea. At least that appeared to be the consensus at commuter rail forum held this morning by A Better City (to mark the release of their paper on commuter rail). The event was structured around the idea of a public-private partnership as the next step in the operation of commuter rail. (The existing contract with MBCR expires in 18 months) I raised the issue of the Patrick Administration’s interest in possibly pulling the commuter rail operation back in-house. From March of this year: Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said the MBTA, a state agency, is eyeing a potential takeover of commuter rail operations when the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company’s contract expires in June 2013. “We’re going to look at […]

Examining Our Community Colleges

Community Colleges are a popular topic these days – with two research reports (here and here) being issued in the past weeks. The first came from the Boston Healthcare Careers Consortium. It was released with a host of ‘stakeholders’ taking credit. This report has its share of consensus-speak but a few items jump off the page. First, the K-12 preparation level for many students is stunningly low – in Bunker Hill Community College’s entering 2009 class, 98% of students needed a remedial placement for at least one discipline (reading, English, and math) and over a third needed placements for all three. More importantly, the paper digs into the lack of coordination across the community college system – different requirements for […]

The Dog That Didn’t Bark — Chelsea Housing Authority and the Auditor

It feels like a familiar story – an obscure public sector entity with a clueless (or worse) board of directors fails to do their job and the executive director makes off with bags of money. Except this time, the setting is the Chelsea Public Housing Authority rather than the Merrimack Valley (see here and here). Briefly, the Director of the Authority managed to pay himself $360,000 per year (far more than any other Housing Authority director in the state) while claiming that he was only making $160,000. His explanation for lying to the state and federal government: He’s a ‘rebel’. Once he figured out his days were numbered, he got the Authority’s bookkeeper to write him checks cashing out his […]

What a Deal: State $. No Oversight?

Imagine getting money from the state on a no-bid basis. Even better, a state law names you as the sole entity eligible to get the cash. If you are lucky enough to be BDC Capital, you don’t have to imagine. As recently as 2008, the program it runs, the Capital Access Program, got $5 million in the life sciences bill. BDC Capital (known as the Massachusetts Business Development Corporation) receives money from the state and other sources and supposedly uses it to support small businesses. And someone is looking out for them, an attempt to open the program to other providers in the last Economic Development bill was dropped in conference. I say ‘supposedly’ above, because no one cares to […]

Pressley’s Victory and Connolly’s Regrets

The more you look at Ayanna Pressley’s first-place finish in Tuesday’s at-large race, the more impressive it looks. As I noted previously, she was able to hold onto a lot of votes from the 2009 at-large election that had much higher turnout (she held onto 90 percent of her ’09 votes with only 57 percent of the total turnout). Now, the exact same people didn’t necessarily vote for her in each election, but I think it’s a useful proxy for a candidate’s popularity and GOTV effort. In fact, in a number of cases across the city (79 of 254 precincts), Pressley exceeded her vote totals from ’09. And it was relatively spread out across the city from a demographic standpoint, […]

Brief Thoughts on Tuesday’s Election Results

Monster win for Pressley: She topped the ticket unequivocally. In the last at-large race, 354 votes separated the two ticket-toppers (Connolly and Murphy). This time around, Pressley beat her closest competitor (Arroyo) by more than 2,000 votes with closer to 50,000 fewer voters to work with. City-wide for Pressley?: Pressley ran strong citywide, with the notable exception of South Boston. I’ll take a deeper dive into those numbers later this week and draw some conclusions about the results, particularly who gained votes where.

5 Things to Watch in Tuesday’s At Large City Council Race

Next Tuesday’s municipal election in Boston has a competitive at-large race and its outcome will provide some advance info on what to expect in the next mayor’s race. Here are 5 things to watch: 1) Is the Flaherty-Pressley Competition A Legit Thesis? The narrative for the early part of the race was based on Michael Flaherty’s entry into the at-large race after giving up his seat to run against Mayor Menino. This created the dynamic of four incumbents, and Flaherty (practically a incumbent as well with strong citywide name recognition) running for only four seats. As the lowest votegetter in the last race, Ayanna Pressley was viewed as the most vulnerable. Her potential exit from the council raised the possibility […]

Horses for Courses; Fire Trucks for Fires

I’ve written previously about Boston About Results and I’ll repeat my recommendation. It’s fascinating to see what city government does when its presented as data, rather than anecdote. Here are some facts that caught my eye…. The Boston Fire Department responds to approximately 70,000 incidents per year. How many of those responses are for fires? Less than 6,000. (To be fair, that count is for actual fires, not false alarms, so that low percentage shouldn’t be construed as a knock on BFD.). How about medical incidents? Those are much more prevalent — about 40 – 45% of incidents are medical in nature. (See Boston About Results for the above data and more.) So, why are we sending 10 – 25+ […]

BPS Meets the Market

Boston Public Schools are competing for students, whether you like it or not. In the early 1970s, the system had enrollment of over 90,000. This school year, they only have enrollment of just over 57,000. Just under a quarter of the school-aged children are educated outside the district – private, parochial, charter, METCO, special ed placement, or homeschooling. If the BPS wants to stem this long-term trend, it needs to compete for students (and parents). And that message seems to have gotten through. For years, the BPS has had access to an incredible wealth of data about what parents want – what do parents pick as their most desirable schools in the dreaded school lottery? They seem to tapping into […]

A Scorecard for MassDOT

I keep seeing trial balloons for a gas tax hike. And I keep thinking they’ve got the process wrong. MassDOT should be telling us how they are doing first before asking for money. The 2009 reforms put a process in place to report consistently on key performance measures but MassDOT is only doing it in part, and only on a yearly basis. They’ve done a far better job of communicating tactical successes — innovative projects and reform-related events. Without this strategic communication, MassDOT will struggle to make the public case that they are managing our assets and our money more wisely than in the past. When you’ve got Big Dig cost overruns and MBTA service failures as part of your […]

MassDOT, Scorecards, and the Gas Tax

In my last post, I put together a model of what MassDOT communicating results to the public might look like. (And I know it’s not perfect — weigh in below with suggestions for improving it.) But getting this part right is the foundation of any discussion of a gas tax. It has to look like a contract — you taxpayers pay this, and MassDOT will give you value in return. Without refocusing the transportation agency on consumer-centered metrics, why would the public think that an increase in the gas tax will lead to service improvements?

Unemployment – It’s Worse Than You Think

Massachusetts has done relatively well (or maybe less bad is more apt) in terms of unemployment. Our current rate is 7.4 percent, far better than the national average of 9.1 percent. But even with a rate of 7.4 percent, that means we’ve got about 130,000 more unemployed people than our pre-recession level of unemployment. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics.

Whose Money Talks in Mass Politics?

The Occupy protesters still have a variety of viewpoints represented but a clear theme is a rejection of corporate influence that they view as having taken over politics. At the same time, the success of the protests in generating attention has attracted the labor movement, which sees a popular vehicle for their goals. If you’d allow me to take the focus down to the specifics of Massachusetts politics for a moment, I’d urge the OccupyBoston folks to think long and hard about what influence money has over politics here and who wields that influence. Take a look at the top 20 PAC donors in Massachusetts from 2010 – 16 of the top 20 PACs were labor-related. Put another way, from […]

Boston About Results 3.0

The grandiose promises of politicians frequently disappoint. Initiatives launched with tremendous fanfare lose momentum as their champions turn their interest elsewhere and move onto other things. So its nice to see exactly the opposite happening in Boston. The city has been talking about its performance management system, Boston About Results, for a number of years. It initially was introduced in 2006 and first appeared as a series of goals and measures in the city budget. Then it progressed into a section of the city website with additional information and graphics for a variety of measures in each department (see BPS example here). As a long-time observer, I was pleased to see the additional data but still felt that improvements could […]

Musings on the Occupy Movement in Boston

OccupyBoston has captured lots of media space with their occupation of the Greenway, but I’m still searching for the point. It has tapped into the collective unease over the state of employment in this country. Faced with flat or declining incomes over time (with compensation increases being consumed by healthcare) and the effects of the recession – high unemployment, widespread underemployment, and declining workforce participation – many are either unemployed or deeply insecure financially. The physical protest itself raises questions about the coherence and potential longevity of the movement. The protesters (from my highly unscientific inspection and reading of news coverage) appear to be mostly white 20-something males. (Side note: News photographers seem to have a knack for catching the […]