Insights & Analysis

Education, Municipal, Opinion

Etiquette and Other Best Practices for the New Normal

Perfecting the Two-Dimensional Meeting in the Age of Virtual Conferences

It’s been an unusual few months, getting used to Zoom and similar technologies. Users have had fun with virtual backgrounds, emojis and other gimmicks. Guess what? Summer is almost over, and the remote collaboration environment is here to stay for many. We are hearing a significant percent of the workforce will not return to the office in any foreseeable future. The two-dimensional meeting is here to stay, and it’s important to learn how to use it.

Create a Profile

Make sure you get a presence in each app you find yourself using. Whether it’s Zoom, Teams, or GoTo meeting, get an account (even if it’s free) and create your profile. Make sure you have a proper picture to display when your video is off. Consider including your organization’s name and job title. For example, stop to consider if your meeting environment deems it acceptable to have the Millennium Falcon as your background.

Plan Your Workspace

It was fun for a while hearing your colleagues’ dogs bark, the occasional cat on the keyboard, grandkids Zoom bombing, or critiquing home decor. As I said, summer is almost over. It’s back to work or school time. Plan to have a proper location, depending on the nature of your audience. Be careful of what’s in the background. I’m sure you may be passionate about your politics, religion or other endeavors. Be mindful of your audience. They may have conflicting views and get distracted from your input as they are focused on reading book titles on your shelf.

Test the location and quality of your camera. Make sure it appears as though you are looking into the camera, otherwise you appear aloof. If you are using multiple monitors, you may need a camera that is not attached to your laptop or screen. The camera should be located behind the monitor you will be using on the call. Make sure the camera is located slightly above your face, and not below your face.

Avoid Joining with Links

Now that you have taken the time to create a profile in the app, do not lose it by joining meetings through links. Sometimes the link brings you in the meeting as a generic user. Launch your app first, log in as you, and then join the meeting with the meeting ID.

Live Etiquette

When you are live in the meeting, make sure your tile includes your name and not some generic title like “Mom’s iPad.” How many times have you been in a meeting and wondered who someone was? This is your chance to always have your name and affiliation posted for all to read. Reading body language in a meeting is important but sometimes difficult sitting around a table. The two-dimensional tiles can make it easier, as long as the cameras are on. Similarly, if you are not going to pay attention to the presenter, turn your camera off. It’s obvious when you are doing something else.

Consider having your mic muted at all times until you are ready to speak. Background noise can be distracting to others in attendance, and even disruptive to the meeting in general.

Guest Speakers

There’s been a paradigm shift in two converging directions from which you can benefit. Attendees are much more willing to attend a virtual event now with a guest speaker, and guest speakers are much more willing to stay home. Nationally known speakers that would have cost in the five-digit neighborhood with travel expenses are now willing to spend an hour on your call for $1,000 or less. Use this as an advantage to engage your audience and significantly enhance the quality of your material.

Camaraderie

Here you will need to be creative, but this part can be the most rewarding. Some of your attendees may have limited contact with other humans. New hires don’t have the option of chatting over the water cooler with colleagues in an office building. You need to create that human contact and build that team virtually.

Members of the Munetrix team were presenters at a recent association board meeting, and the Board Chair always included a team event at her meetings. She wanted to continue that tradition virtually. We used a game show app with topical trivia questions to engage all attendees. Amazon gift cards were awarded for most points.

“MASFPS board members were able to enjoy a round of Kahoot with our friends from Munetrix during our summer leadership and learning academy,” says Sara Shriver, Executive Director with MASFPS. “This was a great way to engage all members during a virtual learning event! It was fun, competitive, and a unique way to build camaraderie as an organizational team!”

ADA Compliance

Lastly, remember and consider the hearing and visually impaired community when conducting meetings, to make sure you are staying compliant with ADA guidelines and requirements. The Center for Hearing and Communication has issued guidance on this matter, and Zoom itself offers its own disability compliance tools and disclosures. Check out Zoom’s library of resources and documentation here, but be sure to frequently check and update your policies and procedures, as both technology and regulations change frequently.

No one can state with certainty how “normal” this “new” reality will last. But we can all take measures now to make the best out of an imperfect working, learning and collaborating environment, until such a time that we all get back to the old normal.

Buzz Brown, Co-Founder, serves as Vice President of Customer Engagement and Chief Data Officer with Munetrix. He can be reached via email at buzz@munetrix.com or by phone at 248.499.8355.

Education, Fiscal Health, K-12, Opinion

Schools Should Take a Three-Phased Approach as They Plan to Return to “Normal”

How to Adapt Today, Become Adept Tomorrow, and What to Adopt Permanently

[A version of this post originally appeared on District Administration, a national trade journal serving school district administrators and educators.]

When announcements came that states were closing schools for the remainder of this school year, in a way they brought the first semblance of clarity to the myriad spate of unknowns. Soon, we began to look ahead to the fall school year, which brings its own set of variables and unknowns. While we expect timelines and announcements to vary from district to district and state to state, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: it is unlikely that things will soon be getting “back to normal” in large measure.

With each day comes increased clarity, if only at the margins, but that clarity is often difficult to recognize in moments of urgency and quickly shifting priorities. But each day, discoveries are being made: we weren’t prepared for this or that, we hadn’t accounted for every contingency, or perhaps, maybe we’ve stumbled upon a better way to manage this particular task.

Which is why, though it may seem difficult at first, school districts and personnel at every level of education should be taking this time to reassess their systems, processes and vulnerabilities to optimize what will eventually be a return to some degree of normalcy. But it likely won’t happen overnight. In fact, we suggest that educators and administrators take a three-phased approach: take immediate remedial actions where you can in the short term, plan for an eventual transition back to a more recognizable learning environment, and document what new workflows should be permanently adopted as best practice long-term.

Phase One: Triage for Today

Literally overnight, educators and administrators were thrust into an entirely unfamiliar work and teaching environment. Technology needed to be learned and adopted without warning, nor training. Employees dispersed to millions of disconnected remote home offices in an instant. Nearly everything we took for granted, in terms of collaboration, communication and cooperation, was suddenly taken from us. And many instantly discovered the limitations and vulnerabilities that few had accounted for.

Access to systems and documents proved challenging for those who are used to keeping software and hardware under literal and figurative lock-and-key. If “it’s at my desktop at school,” it’s practically unreachable at the moment.

But work needs to get done. Meetings need to happen. Projects need to press forward, and budgets will soon be due. We cannot permanently pause. As many have discovered, time waits for no one. 

All of this underscores the need to quickly establish and document new workflows, new teams, new processes for planning, and new systems and technology that live in the cloud or are accessible to anyone who needs it, 24/7. 

Amid all of our other urgent priorities, administrators and educators should be documenting proper workflows that account for each of the following:

  • Tasks: Capture explicit documentation of all required tasks to complete a given project.
  • Teams: Make sure all tasks are assignable to ensure completion and inject accountability.
  • Timelines: Create project milestones that are clearly defined and realistically attainable.
  • Metrics: Measure progress and success against pre-established desired outcomes.
  • Prompts and Reminders: In times of uncertainty, teams will need (and respond to) built-in alerts and prompts when deadlines approach or new priorities arise.
  • Collaboration: Multiple teams may need to collaborate on overlapping projects. Create safeguards against tasks being missed due to workflow handoffs or unclear accountability.

Once decided upon and documented, leverage available technology to create one centralized knowledge base and project management tool, accessible remotely. Harnessing workflows into one centralized location will make sure nothing gets missed or skipped and can account for new workflows that might come along as priorities shift or change.

Phase Two: Transition to Tomorrow

Workflows, processes, systems and task forces will eventually need to return to a more conventional reality. The problem is, we don’t currently know when that will be. Perhaps it will be announced as suddenly as we transitioned away from our regularly scheduled programming. There will be a sense of relief, to be sure…but there will also be demanding deadlines and daunting decisions equal to those we are grappling with today. 

If uncertainty can be mitigated, now is the time to do it, when it is most relevant and obvious. School districts should be encouraging administrators, educators and clerical support to document where the vulnerabilities and shortcomings emerged, so they can be addressed, not only in the long term, but to avoid a painful transition-back in the nearer term.

In the past several weeks, decisions had to be made with little warning, and new processes had to be up and running overnight. But now we do have some luxury of foresight, knowing that a return to regular education is coming, even if we don’t know when. Perhaps now is the time to plan for those workflows and processes to be updated, especially considering that each individual workflow and task force might have several sub-workflows, and perhaps even disparate teams collaborating at different points and times.

A few transitions we can anticipate now, for which workflows and centralized knowledge bases can be established:

How will we track and process the return of devices that have been assigned out, and who is assigned to each subtask?

What is the new process for building preparation and maintenance, following the sudden dispersal of maintenance personnel, including timelines and accountabilities for reopening facilities?

What updates to registration workflows might need to be made if registration for the new school year is in a compressed time frame or needs to occur remotely/digitally?

How do our teacher and student evaluations need to be addressed, given how the final weeks of this school year’s curricula were delivered?

What changes need to be made to accommodate school lunch provision, both over the summer and should another similar crisis arise—remote delivery or centralized pickup?

Many districts were preparing to roll out a new math series in the fall: Will workflows need to accommodate new realities and timelines?

How will summer school be administered?

Are there necessary changes to scheduling and processing of material assets, such as bus maintenance?

As budget deadlines approach, how can we build in scenarios, given the many unknowns?

Technology is better equipped to manage these tasks, workflows and scenarios at scale than humans, pen-and-paper, or even static spreadsheet software (like Excel or Google Sheets). In most cases, the data to make informed decisions and create optimized workflows already exists and is readily available to school districts. There’s never been a better nor more urgent time to plug in to the tools at our disposal.

Phase Three: Adopt to Adapt, and Stay Adept

What many discover during times of crisis is that processes and procedures adapted out of urgency or necessity can actually be adopted as best practices going forward. In fact, the quicker, most efficient way to accomplish priorities can be discovered then defined to make our teams more effective while reducing costs and eliminating unnecessary exposures to human error.

The first step is moving away from paper and into digital environments. Next, make sure that data and technology is universally available and accessible—from anywhere, at any time, by anyone who should rightly have access. Lastly, allow (or force) technology to do the heavy lifting of planning, coordinating and measuring successful projects and collaborating teams.

Your new workflows and systems should allow you to:

  • plan and prepare for the unknown
  • proactively put processes in place and document workflows
  • account for contingencies
  • consider various and, perhaps even unforeseen, scenarios
  • trigger alternate paths, as appropriate
  • maintain a centralized knowledge repository that can be shared, not only among existing team members, but in perpetuity, even as personnel turnover continues at pace for the foreseeable future

School district professionals may find it challenging to manage the complexity of workflows even under “normal” circumstances. Maybe “normalcy” will return soon, but in the meantime, increased urgency and shifting priorities can create or elevate margin for human error. If we can use this challenge as an opportunity to modernize and optimize workflows, we will all be better for it…both in standard operating procedures and, heaven forbid, when the next crisis presents itself.

This discipline and attention to detail in the short term will build better habits for the long run. Once we emerge from crisis mode, we should take comfort in the lessons learned and the uncertainty conquered.

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Engagement with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com.

Education, Fiscal Health, Municipal

Budget Planning at the Height of Uncertainty

Scenarios are Critical When You Can’t Predict the Future

[This article also appears in American City & County Magazine.]

For many working in the public sector, budgeting for an upcoming fiscal year is well underway. Has there ever been a more challenging time to account for future unknowns than the current crisis we find ourselves working to overcome?

Budget planning during a “normal” fiscal year is difficult enough, as unknowns and what-ifs are a part of the budgeting process. Past experiences and fairly settled patterns on which we can generally rely help us predict many of our budget assumptions. But forecasting and projecting an annual plan at a time when “facts on the ground” are changing so fast makes the plans we craft today seem like a fool’s errand.

School administrators and municipal managers should be forgiven for feeling ill-at-ease during their fiscal year-end planning and next-year budget planning sessions: Even the “experts” are getting projections wrong. Their models were off. New data emerged. We failed to account for this or that.

But the numbers will soon be due, and telling. There’s no sense in denying reality. The good news is that there are measures we can take today that won’t necessarily eliminate unpredictability in the future; but can at least account for it…and maybe even prepare for it.

Dynamic Events Demand Dynamic Scenario Building

A school superintendent friend of mine made a profound statement the other day, suggesting that, “Every district better have three budgets in their pocket when they start the 2021 school year!” Great advice!  But how?

One of the best ways to hedge against uncertainty is to create various and disparate scenarios, then calculate the outcomes to provide a range of projections for what the future might look like. The problem many budget builders are having right now is that inputs are seemingly infinite: What if income tax receipts drop 10%? Or 15%? What will our parking revenue be? Not knowing when our retail businesses will be back up to full stride, how much sales tax will they generate? How many children will  show back up for school when it reopens? How will we bus them? How will cafeterias function? With so many jobless claims, how “off” will our income tax revenue be? What if our expenses rise tenfold? With so many unforeseen investments suddenly necessary and urgent, such as PPE being sold at prices four to ten times higher than normal, new cleaning supplies and systems, increased investment in remote technology, ambulances that are wearing down quicker, with longer wait times for replacements, etc.? What if? What if, What if? 

We can’t reliably predict the relevant time horizons to inject any sort of end-date confidence into these projections. Yet, we don’t have the luxury of time to wait for a return to any semblance of “normal,” when projections and forecasts can be more reliably made. So now what?

NOW is the time to act – even if the budget isn’t due for a couple months or more. If we wait too long, too much will have changed, so much new information will have to be accounted for, and we’ll find ourselves scrambling to make best guesses and insert relatively random estimates in the interest of urgency. That’s a recipe for error, and even greater uncertainty. A perfect budget isn’t a reasonable expectation. Budgets are a plan, and plans are subject to change. 

Our advice is to look at the big picture…many of them, in fact. Whereas financial professionals have the natural gift, inclination and patience to make calculations in a very granular manner, the current moment demands that we take a step back and look at broader trends, larger impacts, and to be inclusive of line items we’ve never accounted for in the past. If we don’t, our granular and exacting attention to detail will be swept away with the tide of this rushing wave of new information.

In short, these are dynamic times, to be sure. Events, facts and data change hourly. Your budgeting needs to be equally dynamic and nimble to adapt right along with them.

Start with Three; Adjust as Needed.

With so few knowns and so many questions, we recommend that budgeters start by bracketing uncertainty to limit the range of unpredictability. From there, we can hone in. Start with three budget scenarios, after you’ve made your best-case analysis (likely an educated guess) where you are in the current budget cycle (be conservative) and use a top-down approach (i.e., you can’t spend more than you have), and start with revenues.

  • Best-Case Scenario: What is the most optimistic—but realistic—vision for future revenues and expenditures? Don’t be overly bullish…rather, very cautiously optimistic. This exercise will inject greater calm and confidence, and help you prepare for the future absent negativity, emotion or panic. Just as the coronavirus models themselves improved as behaviors changed, it is possible to emerge from this challenge better off than we’d originally feared. Be sure to have a plan for that eventuality.

  • Worst-Case Scenario: The counter exercise will allow your mind, your team and your planning process to put a bracket around your worst fears. Documenting those not only allows you to start planning now for the worst possible outcomes, it can have the effect of actually easing anxiety, as your budgeting should demonstrate your entity’s ability to withstand the coming storm, if you start accounting for the tough road ahead sooner.

  • Realistic Middle Ground: Only after going through the prior two exercises will your brain and your budget be able to wrap itself around the most likely scenario, factoring in both the negative and positive possible versions of the future. Clarity should emerge. You will get to a point where your focus is on some version of a reasonable forecast, from which you can tinker and tweak to account for deviations in inputs as actual data becomes available.

From there, you’ll want the ability to quickly and repeatedly adjust variables, including revenue and expenditure parameters, once unknowns become likelihoods, and eventually, knowns. It is absolutely critical, though, to build that framework now, so you can continue to make adjustments along the way, rather than build something new from scratch 20 times between now and the budget’s due date.

Of course, standard, off-the-shelf spreadsheet software will make this onerous and rigid. If there was ever a time to make an investment in a nimble, predictive and agile technology to create, envision and modify budget plans, it’s now. The minute you have a scenario settled, the facts will change. And even accounting for numerous and varied scenarios, you can be assured that once you find yourself presenting that budget to a room full of decision makers, someone at the table will inevitably ask, “Have you ever considered what this will look like if X happens, and not Y?”…presenting yet another scenario to consider! 

You’ll want to have that answer in minutes…not weeks or months. For all its utility, Excel will not be up to that challenge. Being able to adjust assumptions on the fly is critical.

Three scenarios may not even be enough. You’ll want a tool that can overlay five or more, and demonstrate side-by-side comparisons, so that informed decisions can be made easily, confidently, collaboratively and quickly.

In the Meantime, Cash is King!

Now is not the time to rest on our laurels and wait for the dust to settle. Apart from working hard on budgeting for an unknown future, we can and must take actions in the more certain present to mitigate future hardship, if at all possible. 

Consider pausing collision insurance on fleet assets, like school busses or dormant DPS vehicles. Before you do, fill the entire fleet up with historically inexpensive fuel, and even try to buy future fuel contracts. Adjust your HVAC controls. Turn off ISPs and cable TV access for buildings not in use. Renegotiate payment terms with vendors, including discounts for early payment terms. Nothing should be off the table. It’s time to re-evaluate everything!

In our experience, chaos breeds opportunities, and there is no time like the present to start addressing an uncertain and ever-changing future.

Need help or ideas? Contact us! Always happy to have conversations and explore scenarios! I can be reached personally using bob@munetrix.com, or leave a message at (248) 499-8355.

Education, Fiscal Health, Municipal, News, Press Releases

Munetrix Provides Live, Interactive Map of Coronavirus Cases to Any Government Agency at No Cost

Free Embed Code Allows Governments to Provide Visualized Map for Any Website

Munetrix, a data analytics solutions provider serving municipalities and public school districts, has developed and launched a visualized map that renders live coronavirus cases data by county, and is making the map available to any municipality, county or government agency that wishes to embed it on its own website.

The Michigan Association of Counties was the first such organization to embed the map on its home page, and since then, more than ten others have embedded the map, including regional councils of government, counties, cities and more, representing more than 5,000 cumulative user views of the map in total as of April 13th.

The interactive map visualizes various data in a live, interactive and scalable manner, with various ways to render the most recently reported government data, including the number of cases, the number of deaths, as well as cases and deaths per 100,000 population, which is sortable by county, council of government and other geographic criteria, as set by the user.

“Access to updated, actionable information is critical right now, both for governments and the constituents they serve,” said Bob Kittle, President and Chief Executive Officer of Munetrix. “It’s vital that the data be visualized, easily understood and widely accessible, as leaders, administrators, health departments and the general public alike make critical and, oftentimes, life-or-death decisions during this COVID-19 pandemic.

“We felt, as a data visualization company, it was our duty to do whatever our technology would allow to deliver that intelligence to those who need it, and to make it easy for anyone to display, use and understand,” he added.

Munetrix will provide a copy-and-paste embed code at no cost to any agency or government entity that would like to display the map on its own website. Simply contact Munetrix or the Michigan Association of Counties to submit a request.

About Munetrix

Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Munetrix, among the nation’s largest aggregators of municipal and school district data, promotes municipal wellness and sustainability through its cloud-based data management tools and proprietary performance management applications. In partnering with Munetrix, municipalities and school districts are able to manage their data and access cost-effective products and advisory services to make meaningful and reliable budgets, financial projections, trend reports and better-informed forward-looking decisions.


Fiscal Health, K-12, Municipal

What Can We Learn from this Forced New Reality?

Municipalities and School Districts Finding Need to Modernize Systems, Processes and Technology to Cope, Collaborate and Conquer Uncertainty

By and large, municipal governments and public school systems are doing admiral and applaudable work during this crisis that was suddenly thrust upon us all. From communicating to constituents with timely updates and critical announcements to establishing remote, virtual working and learning environments, what many have been able to achieve in such a short, compressed time frame is nothing short of amazing.

Of course, things haven’t been perfect. And some communities are coping more easily than others. But considering the circumstances, the early returns for most are encouraging, even as they are dispiriting. “We’re all in this together,” is a mantra we keep hearing, and it’s an important one to keep in mind as events continue to unfold.

No doubt, the cracks are starting to reveal themselves. Educators are confronting and working to overcome obstacles, as local governments are rising to meet previously unforeseen challenges, many seemingly unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. And while some of these newfound hurdles must and can be immediately cleared to keep our communities and schools operating, others are larger than what can be remedied in the here and now.

And therein lies both our collective challenge and opportunity: Take stock—there are lessons to be learned, and there are future decisions to inventory.

Prioritize and Triage Your Newly Discovered Vulnerabilities

In the short term, no doubt many school and municipal administrators are struggling to keep their heads above the proverbial water. But all water eventually finds its level, and there will, at some point, be an adjustment to this new normal, if only in parts. 

Some day, believe it or not, we will all get back to the old normal, and when we do, we will emerge more aware than ever of the challenges, vulnerabilities and downright deficiencies we were once willing to live with. We should use this opportunity—and the respite we’ll receive when we get back to “business as usual”—to take stock of the most critical cracks in our armor, knowing that the next crisis may just as quickly and just as critically present itself without warning. Will we be ready next time? Only if we start preparing today!

We encourage all municipal and school district administrators to document any discoveries they make relative to challenges they suddenly face, which may not have been quite so obvious when things were closer to normal. And we further urge them to encourage their entire staffs to do the same. 

Some challenges we expect many of you are struggling with include considerations such as:

Is there a remotely accessible knowledge bank for all to leverage? Or is critical data and information locked in desktop software on a computer that is suddenly behind locked doors? Or, worse yet, is there data, information or knowledge literally locked in a desktop drawer somewhere—as in, physically? Financial, operational and analytical knowledge, if it’s not already, should be accessible to anybody who needs it, wherever work may take them (in good times or in bad).

Are there tools and resources readily available to assist in the critical decisions we need to make in times of crisis? For example, many school districts need to make nearly instantaneous decisions regarding how and where they distribute their free and reduced lunch programs. A database that can instantly cross-sect demographic data based on need is a critical resource to efficiently answer questions, provide intelligence and inform critical decisions, in a whole host of applications and use cases.

How do we manage projects and teams when we’re all working from home? Significant projects, tasks and undertakings typically require the careful coordination of assets, budgets, personnel and calendars. This isn’t nearly as challenging when teams can convene, share physical project assets, and interact fluidly. But what about now, with no two people working in any single location? Project management software should facilitate collaboration, cooperative planning and dynamic budgeting, and even allow for asynchronous, a-geographical communication and coordination. Projects that have been long in the works might need to be urgently migrated to such third-party planning tools…then migrated back once we all get to enjoy some semblance of normalcy again.

What is our organization’s level of emergency preparedness? We’re re-learning during this most recent crisis just how quickly facts on the ground can change the modus operandi. What one day seems unimaginable and draconian may tomorrow feel necessary and intuitive. Coordinating, monitoring and documenting emergency preparedness and safety drills will be increasingly critical and, likely, more widely mandated in the future. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when “active-shooter lockdown” drills weren’t deemed necessary, but nuclear fallout drills were. And today, we are sheltering in place to escape and minimize viral infection. It’s important now more than ever to ask and answer: Will our systems and resources make such compliance and transparency easier, or more difficult?

Address the Urgent. Document the Important.

While we fully expect the cracks in the foundation to be showing (who in this world is today not waking up to new vulnerabilities and challenges?), we don’t expect that they be addressed and remedied overnight. Nor should they be. Sometimes, the decisions we make in times of crisis prove to be overreaches down the road.

But we can triage. We can document everything, and we can prioritize initiatives against considerations of urgency, impact and effect. Some challenges need to be immediately overcome, such as remote learning and virtual working environments. You’ve already taken steps in those regards. There will be more to consider. But you won’t be able to plug every hole in the dam at once.

Use this time to observe, to reflect and to take stock. Eventually, there will come a time when all (or most) of these challenges can and must be addressed. If we want to optimize our operations in preparation for times of crisis, we should modernize our technology, tools and resources now—once the dust of this current crisis clears. We will all need to rethink our priorities, plans and processes, not only to avoid future pain, but to attain an evergreen optimization of data, knowledge and valuable resources that represent the lifeblood of our communities. 

We must create a roadmap for tomorrow’s success, even amid today’s pain. There’s no better time to plan for that than the present, when we are right in the middle of it.

To join a no-cost Webinar that illustrates the capabilities and applications of the Munetrix ProjectTracker app, please register today. We plan to share tips and best practices for managing projects, personnel and budgets remotely.

If you have any questions relative to your community’s preparedness or data management capabilities, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Education, K-12, Municipal, Opinion

The Problem with Buzzwords

Is the use of jargon actually standing in the way of progress?

“Transparency.”

“Smart cities.”

“Big data.”

Our world is littered with them. Call them “buzzwords,” call it “jargon,” call it “government speak.” Whatever you call them, it’s clear that people are using words and expressions they don’t fully understand, can’t reliably define, and, what’s worse, won’t even recognize when they actually see them executed properly.

Heck, even the word “data” has become something of an overused, catch-all moniker being applied to virtually anything containing a fact or figure. Is a printout of a spreadsheet, tucked away in the desk drawer of a retired clerk, “data?” Is a crumpled-up, out-of-date map “data?” Is an artifact dug from an archeological site considered to be “data?”

And what makes data “big,” for that matter?

Or consider the concept of “smart cities.” What makes a city “smart?” Sure, there are definitions out there…but can you recite one? Most people can’t—even those clamoring for them (or even part of the conversation, in many instances).

Which brings us to “transparency.” Transparency is a word I’ve been hearing since the 1980s , first in the automotive world, later in the political arena , and now virtually everywhere you turn—including routine business matters with municipalities and school districts. But ask 100 people to define transparency and you’ll get 100 different answers. (I know…I’ve done it!) 

Even our old friend Noah Webster has a difficult time defining transparency: “the quality or state of being transparent.” (Not joking…look it up.) The definition of transparent per Webster is no joy either, the best of eight options being “readily understood.”  So the answer is: “the quality or state of being readily understood?” See the problem?

If we can’t even agree on definitions, how can we come to consensus as to whether we’ve achieved the outcomes we all profess to desire, such as government transparency, smart cities and the public’s understanding of available community data?

The Problem with Jargon

It’s not that they aren’t admirable and worthwhile pursuits, these commitments to transparency, the continued progress toward smarter cities, and providing universal community access to public data. They are. The problem arises when people use buzzwords as a shield from scrutiny or evaluation.

If nobody truly understands the meaning of a noble-sounding aspiration, it becomes easy to pay lip service to abstractions and hide behind actual results. Claims of transparency and “smart-ness” become easier to tout, as an unwitting public is becoming increasingly immune to their effects: We hear the words, we vaguely understand the actions people are making toward the objectives these buzzwords describe, and we assume progress is being made. It’s comforting, in a way.

But what if it’s not?

What if we end up with  the illusion of transparency, but, in reality, too few are actually achieving the intended goals of informing our public, community employees and elected officials?

Consider a hypothetical: An entity commissions a study and produces a 500-page report, then posts a PDF of that report somewhere buried deep within its website. Is this transparency? Is the PDF even data? At 500 pages, it certainly is big…but big data, it is not.

The ultimate danger that the proliferation of over-used and misapplied terminology poses to our communities is that we hear the lip service, we see activity and proposals, we witness claims of accomplishments, and we fall complacent to actually achieving measurable results and meaningful progress toward the vital ends our communities need to achieve—fiscally, scholastically, and politically.

Less Talk, More Walk

As an industry—and as a community—we can do better. As someone who works in the “data” business, I see the opportunities firsthand. We need to better educate our citizens about important initiatives we pursue on their behalf…and clearly report on the progress (or lack thereof) being made. 

Free of jargon. Free of buzzwords. Overflowing with clarity.

Let’s understand what types of information our community is truly interested in seeing, and let’s package those facts and figures in a way that is accessible and relevant to their interests. Let’s hold “Citizen 101” town halls to better educate our friends and neighbors about what they can know about, what they can care about…and what they should stay educated about…and let them tell us what “transparency” truly means to them.

It’s not that the technology isn’t there. We have all the data we need…big and small! And we look at ours daily. The types of information that people most readily click on and download just might surprise those who might be too close to the data to fully appreciate. People, school districts, and government entities may assume they’re offering data that complies with government-issued transparency mandates, and they may assume that that’s enough. But are they truly giving the people what they really care about in their everyday lives? Often not, I suspect.

There’s a standard for this already, to which I reference (and adhere to) often: the Government Accounting Standards Board’s (GASB) litmus test for the quality of data being shared. The six qualitative characteristics, as set forth in GASB’s Concepts Statement No. 1, Objectives of Financial Reporting are:

  • Relevant
  • Reliable
  • Understandable
  • Timely
  • Consistent
  • Comparable

Most of all, let’s make it simple. Let’s resolve—as an industry, as municipalities, as school districts, and as councils of government—to make it easy for elected officials and citizens alike to understand the terminology we use and the solutions we are trying to provide to achieve things like transparency and smart cities. 

An informed public is a powerful public. Let’s leave the buzzwords behind…and move our communities forward.

[To learn the one acceptable buzzword here at Munetrix, please click here.]

Education, Fiscal Health, Municipal

The Transparency Illusion

By Bob Kittle

The demand for government transparency is more fervent than ever. While, in the past, inquiring about the use of tax dollars required time, filling out forms or even a trip to City Hall, today the public expects almost instant gratification to their questions — or not even have to ask questions because they want to find it on their own with internet searches, even from their mobile device. More often than not, they are disappointed with the results they find.

The problem isn’t that local governments aren’t posting budgets and financial information online. It’s that they are doing so in a manner that pretty much renders them useless to anyone who doesn’t have a background in municipal finance, public administration or data science. When it comes to transparency, more isn’t always better, and dozens of 100-page PDF documents are not synonymous with the intent of Transparency.

People want to know what projects and programs their tax dollars are funding; answers to questions like where the money for those new signs came from, why potholes on their street aren’t fixed, or any other information that’s relevant to their home value, safety and/or quality of life in the neighborhood.

Citizens want timely, helpful data that they can understand. When local governments post loads of data ad nauseam, the public is left with the task of sorting through it and trying to understand what it all means and how it relates to their query. For many, the process isn’t just exasperating, it results in having less trust in their government. A telling bumper sticker I once saw said, “I love my country, but I don’t trust all its governments.” Touché.

This type of transparency is like wearing someone else’s prescription glasses; you might be able to see some blurred images but not the details that really matter.

Publishing reams of data isn’t transparency, It’s the illusion of transparency.

Understanding what information to share, when to share it and the level of transparency people expect:

  • helps local governments provide insightful and relevant information;
  • reduces the risk of publishing private information;
  • improves community public relations; and
  • encourages trust in the electorate and area stakeholders.

This consistency also provides stakeholders the ability to know exactly where information is, when it was put there and how to retrieve it. It should also stay in the same location for consistency purposes.

While someone should be tasked with managing and monitoring transparency within the organization, it doesn’t require a new hire or expansive workload. The use of performance management software (like the Munetrix dashboard), makes the process easy, efficient and relatively timeless and provides municipalities and school districts with the ability to share, monitor and understand the data they publish with little more than a click of a mouse.

We recommend being fully transparent, so you’ll never be accused of the “Illusion of Transparency” when it comes to accessing your open data and documents. 

News

As Michigan’s K-12 enrollment declines, count day grows in importance; first count day of the school year is Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Auburn Hills, Mich. –August 27,  2019 – The term, “count day” which is Wednesday October 2, 2019, is a familiar one to both Michigan educators and the parents who want their child counted, according to Buzz Brown, co-founder and Vice President of Munetrix, a public sector solutions provider offering data management, analytics and reporting tools for states, local governments and public school districts. Brown says the familiar term is taking on increased significance as Michigan’s K-12 population declines.

“Students in Michigan school districts and charter schools are counted many other dates besides the first official count day in October,” Brown said. ‘There are actually four official count days each school year, but the October date is the standout because it’s first. From a percentage perspective 90% of district students are accounted for in October and 10% are accounted for in January.”

Most schools only count on count day because of the extra paperwork and reporting requirements for counting students after that date – but that can be a costly mistake, Brown cautions. That’s because declining enrollment and the competitive race to attract children to neighboring school districts, charter schools and private schools are collectively slicing into a shrinking pie.

“One of the few growing districts in SE Michigan lost $1M in state funding last year when 120 children failed to be counted for unknown reasons, yet given their growth rates, this district was able to absorb the cost more easily than others – but it still hurt,” Brown said.  “Most Michigan districts are contracting and fewer students mean fewer dollars.”

For those who miss count day, there is some leniency. Schools have 10 days after count day to count a child that has an unexcused absence, 30 days if the absence is excused and 45 days if the student is suspended. The challenge to the districts, regardless of the number counted, is that they always start the school year in Michigan before the state budget is decided, leaving some schools to borrow money until state aid is released.

“The timeframe of the state budget for education is a hot topic each fall. Compared to that, getting students to be counted on count day is a much easier task,” Brown said. “As some school districts will attest. a pizza party and other incentives to lure students to school that day also helps.”

Additional information on  school count day and funding can be found at the State of Michigan website.

News

And then there were none…cities and schools must prepare for silver tsunami of public sector retirements as next gen college students select other careers

Auburn Hills, Mich. –September X, 2019 –A silver tsunami of retirements is anticipated in schools and municipalities over the next several years; yet, as college students head back to college this month, only an estimated 5% are considering a career in the public sector. Further, a 2019 survey found the number of students graduating with a master’s degree in public policy and entering careers in federal, state and local government dropped 15% from 2011 to 2017. These statistics should have local government unit leaders on edge, according to Bob Kittle, president of Munetrix, a public sector solutions provider offering data management, analytics and reporting tools for states, local governments and public school districts.

“Finance directors, assessors and administrators are just an example of positions already in short supply. Think of where we’ll be when those who understand complex water and sewer systems leave,” Kittle said. “And those technical positions lean more toward skilled trades rather than traditional four-year college grads, and the shortage of skilled trades has already been well established.”

A 2016 report from Pew noted that 50% of state and 52% of local government employees were between the ages of 45 and 64 in 2013; but Kittle says administrators at the local level can be reticent to share information on their own local unit’s expected retirement wave.

“I’m regularly on the speaker’s circuit discussing data driven decision making and succession planning.  When I ask for a show of hands as to how many in the audience will be retiring in the next five years, typically # hands go up,” Kittle said. “This supports the data we have in our platform that tracks employees by age range in cities and schools, but when we ask our customers outright for data on planned staff retirements over the next five years, there is definitely a reluctance to provide the information.”

Kittle says the hesitation can be that certain districts or cities don’t run reports on the data or track it well enough. That’s why Munetrix has a tool with its platform that makes tracking easier.

“We are really heading toward a crisis situation in the public sector in terms of talent and seniority,” Kittle said. “The Munetrix app is a tool to help support succession planning and institutional knowledge preservation, and to increase the portability of key jobs within the local unit, but we still need to raise awareness of the option for career changers and young adults to pursue public sector opportunities.”

For their part, the company established Munetrix University in 2013 to provide paid internships in data science to college students. The company has had 26 interns since it began the program in 2013.  Additionally, Munetrix announced this month a new scholarship program through the Michigan Government Finance Officials Association and (name of school association) that it would offer five  $1,000 scholarships to college students who plan to pursue a career in local government. Students may apply for the scholarship through (add website links.)

1 2 3 6 7
Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Youtube
Consent to display content from Youtube
Vimeo
Consent to display content from Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from Google
Spotify
Consent to display content from Spotify
Sound Cloud
Consent to display content from Sound