Recognizing the role of recognition in public service

This year, the Tennessee legislature’s website was recognized with top honors from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Legislative Information and Communications Staff Section (NCSL LINCS) and the National Association of Legislative Information Technology (NALIT).  One state legislature, caucus or house is selected each year for the Online Democracy award, highlighting how their website “helps makes democracy user-friendly.” The Tennessee General Assembly also received this honor in 2009 (see past winners); in the words of the award committee, 2015’s winning attributes included “its inviting, warm and welcoming qualities, essential for engaging citizens….a consistent design, [and] fresh content but easy to access past information.”

No doubt a happy occasion for the General Assembly’s elected officials and legislative staff, this recognition is also a reminder of the roles that both professional organizations and specialized awards play in supporting the efforts of public servants. The steady work of public administrators is often behind the scenes, while the ebb and flow of politics takes center stage — at least when administration is going well. Recognizing the value of the “dog that didn’t bark” is always harder than complaining over a bureaucratic hurdle.  The last time that you went to to the legislative website and found the bill tracking information you needed without a hassle; that day the helpful staff member from the Revenue Department unsnarled your tax confusion over the phone; that weekend you were kept safe, unawares, by the rangers at your favorite state park — when these good things happen, the average citizen doesn’t take a moment to drop some public administrator a thank-you note.  Nor should we have to, of course; ethical, efficient and effective service in accordance with the law and infused with public administration values should be the norm.  Nonetheless, we know that the same incentives that reward high performers and team achievements in the private sector often cannot exist for public servants.  In their absence, recognition from peers takes on extra significance:  peers who understand both the wonky details and the particular challenges of the specialized work of public servants.

From the perspective of the organizations who develop and offer these awards, they serve multiple functions.  If the organization is a membership association, award programs are part of the suite of benefits offered to members.  Being able to participate in nominations and the possibility of receiving an award oneself may be potential incentives to join. The award program, the ceremonies and the press releases that accompany each year’s recognitions help publicize and legitimize the awarding organizations themselves as part of the network ecology around a public function or specific profession.   Potentially more valuable from a larger standpoint, however, are the ways in which awards could disseminate public service values, and the norms of best practice, in a particular field of government or nonprofit activity. The most effective type of recognition in this class may be those which focus on public administration work product rather than individual public servants.

So, in recognition of the role of these recognitions, here’s a far from exhaustive selection of professional organizations and awards they offer (with a bias towards my area of public budgeting and public finance), in no particular order.  In general, award process participation, nomination, and/or eligibility are conditioned on membership.  I am particularly interested in awards given for public administration work product or to organizations/agencies; of course, most professional associations in any field also have awards recognizing individuals for distinguished achievements over the short or long run. Some of the awards listed are given to only one recipient at a time, like the LINCS/NALIT Online Democracy award described above. Others, like the GFOA recognitions for high quality government financial documentation, may have as many recipients as applicants who meet the qualifications in a given period, so as to incentivize as many agencies as possible to meet the relevant standards.   Share others in the comments if I didn’t list your favorite, there are more!  And, whether you’re a student or already in service, if you have let membership in your professional association lapse (or haven’t yet joined) — remember the role they play in supporting your development and, conversely, the obligation that you have to give back to your own profession.  Speaking of, time for me to pay my ASPA dues for the year…

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Anxieties of federalism and Common Core

Google N-gram of standardizeHere is a short piece in PA Times Online, written with MPA alumnus Alex Frederick, on the drive to standardize in public administration and why Common Core has touched on nerves in this area, especially given the intergovernmental context of K-12 education in the U.S.

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Reason to celebrate, for budget nerds

Cover of NASBO 2015 Budget Process in the StatesBreak out the champagne, or at least the green eyeshades – the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) has published a new edition of “Budget processes in the states” in Spring 2015 (last issued in 2008).  If this doesn’t catch your interest, you may not be a public finance nerd — a new edition of this occasional survey of the diversity of budgetary institutions across states is always reason to celebrate for students and faculty in public administration.  The survey, first published in 1975, reviews the current status of features such as balanced-budget requirements, timing, performance measurement and more. Enjoy…and thanks to NASBO for the important work that they do, not limited to this series; a variety of other annual or occasional publications provide data and insights for practitioners and scholars alike.  Check out 2014’s “Capital budgeting in the states” as well.

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Muni bond insurance industry – on the way back, sort of?

This short Reuters piece summarizes the status of the municipal bond insurance market, which froze up during the financial crisis and shrunk dramatically in its wake. Municipal bond insurance became much less common as a credit enhancement than it had been pre-2008, when it was often purchased by issuers in hopes of better ratings, interest rates and market acceptance for new issues than they would have garnered in their “natural” state. The ecology of the original small community of muni bond insurance firms changed as well in the pivotal period of turmoil, with several exiting and a few new ones springing up in recent years (though not all independently; MAC was established and is owned by Assured Guaranty ( or more exactly by some of its parts ( As the Reuters article explains, 2013 data suggest the muni insurance industry may be showing signs of a rebound, or at least, a slowed decline.

US municipal bond insurance’s contraction slowed in 2013 (Reuters)

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Update on Fed budgeting “process”; stop-gap but on way to a wider agreement

Congress to Pass Three-Day Spending Bill To Avoid Shutdown – Management –

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Are we arriving at the main event?

As part of a survey response used in this online article this summer, I wrote “…Disturbingly, we are beginning to look like a society that cannot predictably execute the routines of governing – and that does not engender faith in our economy. As long as ours seems to be in marginally better shape than others, we get by. Should we reach a point where that is no longer the case, the absence of commitment to do the work of government will be less of an embarrassing sideshow and more of an alarming main event. Budgeting is a foundational aspect of government, regardless of how minimal a state you prefer.”  If policymakers on both sides fail to find a way to work together, enough to raise the debt ceiling, we will indeed be at the main event.  The Wall Street Journal discusses why the debt ceiling is of greater concern to investors than the shutdown.  The Economist provides a perspective from across the pond.  So does the Financial Times with an update on the market response and how banks are preparing for the possibility of a default.

Rating agency Standard & Poors’ press release (10/2/2013) summarizes their estimate of the impact of the ongoing shutdown on the economy and points out the potential impact of the lack of federally-produced economic data on the Fed’s decision-making and their own ability to analyze the situation.  Their July 10 2013 analysis of US sovereign creditworthiness makes very useful reading – I commend it to you even though we have not gotten to the part of the class that deals with debt and ratings.  S&P report that their rating takes into account the risk that political ability to make progress on “fiscal consolidation” (i.e., reducing the structural imbalance between Federal spending and revenues, whether by expenditure policy changes, tax policy changes, or a combination) will continue to be limited due to Washington gridlock in a divided government:

The stable outlook indicates our view that some of the downside risks to our ‘AA+’ rating on the U.S. have receded to the point that the likelihood that we will lower the rating in the near term is less than one in three. We do not see material risks to our favorable view of the flexibility and efficacy of U.S. monetary policy. We believe the U.S. economic performance will match or exceed its peers’ in the coming years. We forecast that the external position of the U.S. on a flow basis will not deteriorate.

However, that is certainly not the same as saying that the government could default on its debt with impunity due to this gridlock; the next paragraph of the Outlook section continues:  

We believe that our current ‘AA+’ rating already factors in a lesser ability of U.S. elected officials to react swiftly and effectively to public finance pressures over the longer term in comparison with officials of some more highly rated sovereigns and we expect repeated divisive debates over raising the debt ceiling. We expect these debates, however, to conclude without provoking a sharp discontinuous cut in current expenditure or in debt service. [emphasis added] We see some risks that the recent improved fiscal performance, due in part to cyclical and to one-off factors, could lead to complacency. A deliberate relaxation of fiscal policy without countervailing measures to address the nation’s longer-term fiscal challenges could place renewed downward pressure on the rating.

At the end of the rating report you can see the rating history – S&P downgraded the unsolicited US sovereign debt rating in summer 2011 in response to the last episode of debt ceiling brinkmanship and ongoing inability to work productively on fiscal consolidation.

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Another backgrounder on the #shutdown, the legal controls on its implementation

Here’s another interesting backgrounder on the shutdown, this time on the Antideficiency Act which governs how the shutdown takes place.

The Odd Story of the Law That Dictates How Government Shutdowns Work

A shutdown would end up costing more because of the price of restarting the government — and other strange facts about the late-1800s Antideficiency Act.


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Last one out, turn off the lights

The federal government is approaching a shutdown, continuing a pattern of brinkmanship as every new deadline approaches – rather than disciplined and regularized budget process observance.  Even should we make it past this turn of the fiscal year without a shutdown (unlikely) the symbolic raising of the debt limit deadline is just around the corner.  We are currently operating in the “sequester” which I discussed in a previous semester.  As you observe events unfolding in these unusual budgetary times, make an effort to get past ideological shortcuts and take an analytical perspective based on your learning in the MPA program.

Observing the executive and legislative branches’ behavior and gamesmanship in recent years makes the detailed budget processes covered in the textbook appear meaningless.  Nevertheless, the players in this drama (and it is depressingly dramatic; boring routine in fiscal matters would be a refreshing relief, and would be better received by the markets) are quite aware of the institutional rules which they can manipulate to force confrontation; those rules are grounded in budgetary and fiscal legislation. (an Atlantic Monthly property, also publishes Government Executive) addresses “Who will notice a US government shutdown” – the metaphor of ice freezing through the economy over time as a shutdown persists is particularly apt.  The New York Times bemoans the fact that the shutdown 17 years ago appears to have left little impression on the Congress of today – “Last shutdown a lesson lost on Capitol Hill”  The Wall Street Journal summarizes recent events leading up to the shutdown.

The intergovernmental impact of a shutdown is substantial.  Governors respectfully request that Congressional leadership not slam on the brakes, in a letter at the National Governors Association; note the emphasis on the value of predictability.   The nations’ mayors oppose a shutdown as well.  The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a location for updates on the impact of the shutdown.

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Detroit – the decision

Largest municipal bankruptcy yet announced today:

NYTimes: Detroit Goes Bankrupt, the Largest City to Do So in U.S.

"The decision by the city, the cradle of America’s automobile industry and once the nation’s fourth-most populous, also marks the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history in terms of debt."

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Detroit – the decision

Largest municipal bankruptcy yet announced today:

NYTimes: Detroit Goes Bankrupt, the Largest City to Do So in U.S.

“The decision by the city, the cradle of America’s automobile industry and once the nation’s fourth-most populous, also marks the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history in terms of debt.”

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