Alabama, which was found to be the worst managed state in the country two years ago, has measurably improved its performance since, according to a joint project of Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and Governing magazine, which periodically grades state governments on how they serve their citizens.
If the project's findings are good news for Alabama citizens, they are good news for citizens of nearly every state. Thanks in part to new technology, state governments are generally improving their management practices, bringing the delivery of better, more efficient public services, the biennial study found. A strong economy and policy makers managing for results have served to boost government performance on everything from the handling of taxpayer dollars to issuing driver's licenses and fishing permits, it says.
"Most states have used recent years of economic prosperity to save money and manage their surpluses more carefully...and to use improved technological capacities to deliver services to citizens more smoothly," says Dale Jones, director of Maxwell School's Government Performance Project.
The project graded the performance of the states in five key management categories: finances, capital improvements, human resources, information technology and managing for results. It was financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts (which also funds Stateline.org).
In 1999, Alabama was found to be the worst managed state in the country and was given a grade of D, the only near-failing grade issued that year. But this year the state raised its average grade to a C-, thanks to the introduction of long-term budget planning and the launch of pilot programs in areas such as youth services and mental health.
Alabama ended up being listed with Idaho, Maine, New Mexico, New York and California on this year's report card as the governments with the most improved management systems.
California, which moved from a C- to a C , was given credit for turning a $3.6 billion debt in 1997 into a $622 million surplus at the beginning of the 2000 fiscal year. The state's current energy crisis could end up putting a significant dent in that surplus, but management improvements it has made in a number of areas will help it weather any hardships caused by its power shortages, the study shows.
The six "most improved" states were among 23 that improved their overall grades this year. Eleven states dropped a grade, and 16 remained the same, indicating little or no change in their management practices.
States given credit for being the best managed were Michigan, Utah and Washington, all of which posted A- scores on their report cards. Washington and Utah are holdovers from 1999. Virginia and Missouri also got top grades two years ago, but have slipped a bit, the project found.
The key to success, noted Jones, is that all three top ranked states appear to have "well-integrated systems" linking the branches of government and "strong leadership" open to innovative changes.
Utah was singled out in the study as a model that other states should emulate in the categories of financial and information technology management.
The report gave credit to most states for the way they handled worries that the dawn of the year 2000 would bring with it a plethora of computer problems, saying their efforts to deal with the Y2K scare had an "unexpected and positive impact" on how they serve their citizens.
"The computer bug that never materialized has ironically been working all this time in ways we never expected," said Jones. "What started with upgrading hardware and software has resulted in many states with well-managed information technology systems that integrate services from agency to agency and from the executive branch to the legislature."
While generous in its praise of the states, the study warned that many could face a worker shortage because they are not competitive with private sector salaries. The study found that many states are in need of accountants and clerks, engineers, corrections personnel, nurses and, as always, teachers.
In an effort to attract more workers, states such as Vermont, New Mexico and Washington are giving their managers more flexibility in the hiring process, including added input in setting job qualifications. Many states are also raising pay scales to attract better employees, the study said.