Wednesday, October 5th, 2011 - 11:49
Even in a day when there seems to be disagreement about even the simplest of notions, we don’t see anyone arguing with the proposition that government, at all levels, has lots of problems to solve.
In an ideal world, we believe, this would be a time when governmental entities would be able to devote more energy than ever to the use of analysis to make sure that the limited dollars they have to spend are used most effectively and efficiently.
Sadly, our ideal world is far from the one any of us live in. In fact, states and cities seem to be moving in precisely the opposite direction. From coast to coast, the very people who have historically been responsible for this kind of thinking are finding themselves out of work. And it’s far more difficult to run a smarter government if you cut out its brains one budgetary shovelful at a time.
Consider the situation in California, a state with no small share of troubles to resolve. At its peak in 2002, the California Research Bureau (CRB) had more than 40 staffers. Now it has 16. “We used to have subject matter experts,” says Brian Sala, Acting Director of the CRB. “All four of my researchers are generalists now. That has a very definite impact on our ability to do focused research"
According to Sala: “CRB used to produce an occasional series of research notes, longer policy briefs. The legislature would say we need a study on X. It would be delegated to us with no additional appropriations. It is much more difficult for us to do those longer studies now. I'd have to dedicate 25% of my staff to a study that would take almost a year.” Partially as a result, in 2011 the Research Bureau produced four compilations of studies between January and the end of September. Over the same time span the previous year, it came out with 18.
Just north, in Washington State, the state government has been cutting back funding for its well-respected auditor’s office. Most recently, it took $8 million in performance audit funding from the auditor. At the time, we asked Brian Sonntag, the state auditor about this, and he said his performance audits have a return on investment of 10-to-1 for every rcommendation that's adopted.
Go to just about anyplace that compiles studies of local and state performance or cost-effectiveness, or other reports on government activities and you’ll see the dropoff in production. The Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit issued 20 performance audits between January and September in 2010; this year, there were 10. Virginia has a very useful website of Reports to the General Assembly. In 2010, the list spanned four and a half pages. So far this year, it’s only two and a quarter.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. In the last couple of years, Oregon’s well-respected Progress Board was de-funded, as was The Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center. Somewhat more recently, the legislature in Florida dramatically changed the rules for its analytic arm, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. In 2010, the office’s budget was cut from $8 million to about $6 million. More recently, lawmakers shifted OPPAGA’s funding from a separate budgetary line item into a discretionary account controlled by the legislative leadership. As in other cases, there have been persuasive allegations that these kinds of changes were as much tied to a fear of independent information as to a need to save a few dollars. “It is unfortunate that the legislature can’t have/fund a truly independent auditing entity that can be honest without fear of political retribution,” Senator Paula Dockery, told Florida’s Sun-Sentinel.
George Mason’s Public Administration Program Director Paul Posner has been studying this kind of work for many years. He puts the decline in analytic capacity in the states and cities into powerful context: “We are all poorer for it,” he says. “We lose the capacity for foresight. We lose ability to see beyond the boundaries of government to the broader environment within which government works. You lose the forest for the trees. It is a real loss to our capacity to understand the broader context within which our . . . government works . . . It is important to have broader indicators of society’s well being. Not just how many clients served, but the impact. When things like this are shut down, people in government lose, whether they know it or not.”
Given current fiscal pressures, the future of the federal government’s analytic capacity is hard to predict. Says Posner: “I think the states have been under extraordinary fiscal pressure that the federal government has not until now faced.” So, on the one hand, when the Senate Committee on Appropriations marked up its spending bill, it called for a 9.4 percent reduction from the Government Accountability Office’s request. That’s 7.6 percent less than was enacted for fiscal year 2011. This may not wind up lasting through approval by the full Senate and the House, but it’s an alarming straw in the wind, especially given the enormously useful analytic work for which the GAO has earned a great reputation.
On the other, and somewhat happier hand, President Barack Obama has seemed to be heading in the direction of building up federal analytic capacity. As he said, ”We need to restore the American people’s confidence in their government – that it is on their side, spending their money wisely, to meet their families’ needs. That starts with the painstaking work of examining every program, every entitlement, every dollar of government spending and asking ourselves: Is this program really essential? Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth? Can we accomplish our goals more efficiently or effectively some other way?”
The President has helped ramp up the federal commitment by creating a $100 million bucket from which agencies can request funds for program evaluation initiatives. Who knows whether that money will actually be handed out in the face of the current economy, But, even if this and other of the President’s management initiatives remain intact, capacity questions at the state level will continue to bedevil federal efforts to evaluate programs. In fact, the Government Accountability Office’s excellent reports about the Recovery Act were often littered with comments about capacity issues at the state and local level. As we wrote in one of our final blog posts on the Recovery Act, even a casual reading of the Government Accountability Offices extensive reports on the stimulus reveals that lack of capacity has been an ongoing problem: ”If the states and localities are unable to provide sufficient data, analysis and evaluation, the federal efforts will suffer..
Outside of the military, Social Security, and a few other programs much of the money the federal government spends is passed through state and local governments. Consider transportation, for example. The federal government provides the funding for the Interstate Highways, but operating and maintaining them falls to the states If the states have insufficient information about issues like access, levels of congestion and so on, how can the feds possibly fulfill the President’s goals? Even if the federal government mandates performance measurements on things like transportation, when states and localities don’t have the appropriate resources, it all falls under the “can’t get blood from a turnip” brand of budgeting.
We can certainly understand the politics of the situation for states and localities. It’s difficult to persuade taxpayers that any revenues should be used for analyzing the utility of libraries, at the same time as their city is actually closing libraries down.
But even though it may be a hard sell, it’s a critical one. If you’re going to spend any money, you need to have the ability to know if you’re spending it effectively. And politicians who try to please their constituents by arguing that they’re better off with broad scale cutbacks to analysis in exchange for retaining some services may be doing them a serious disservice.
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