Promises, Promises


Promises, Promises

Monday, February 6th, 2012 - 10:52
The world is full of ideas for government that brim over with potential – at least according to their supporters.

The world is full of ideas for government that brim over with potential – at least according to their supporters. Relatively few of these actually see the light of day. Sometimes there’s not enough money; sometimes political opposition stops them in their tracks; sometimes they simply lack a champion with sufficient power to see them through to fruition.

That being the case, you’d think that once a program, policy or regulation was put into effect, everybody would be terribly eager to know how successfully it worked out.   After all the study and debate that goes into creating something new, the next obvious question is: “Did it work the way it was planned?”

Sadly, all too often that question is never asked. In the area of information technology, for example, new systems often escape the kind of scrutiny necessary in order to find out if they’re delivering the benefits promised. Similarly budgetary savings promised from consolidations of agencies (or for that matter de-consolidations) can often go untested. 

A vested interest

 Why is this the case? Sometimes managers and legislators just don’t want to risk hearing bad news altogether.  “They have a vested interested in it working,” says Rebecca Otto, state auditor for Minnesota.

Richard Tracy is a one-time audit director for Portland, Oregon and a former board member of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. Now a consultant, he explains, “The challenge is the fear.  . . .Potentially bad news can be harmful politically."

That’s certainly been true in our experience. Information is power – and elected officials who are interested fundamentally in power often tend to be disinclined to see more information in the world that could potentially play into the hands of their opponents. We’ve seen the same kind of phenomenon crop up in the areas of cost-benefit analysis; performance measurement; performance evaluations and elsewhere. 

Tracy also points out that in many governments, the resources to check back on past actions are simply lacking. This may be especially true in a time when analytic capacity is in increasingly short supply in many cities and states, and the pressure is on to put money directly into service delivery, rather than evaluation of service delivery.  “One of the challenges is actually having the time and the resources to do the follow up,” says Tracy, “For some people putting money into follow up is often thought of as wasted.”

Benefits of accountability

But while it’s easy to understand a variety of obstacles to this kind of effort, that doesn’t mean that accountability avoidance should be acceptable to taxpayers.  This becomes particularly clear when you look at some examples in which governmental entities did carefully review a previous action to make sure it was going as anticipated. Consider an effort in Utah to look at the state’s Drug Offender Reform Act a couple of years ago. The program increases up-front costs in hopes of saving money later on (because of reduced crime/recidivism). The review found that the full program had been started before the pilot program results were available (which certainly seems to fly in the face of the whole idea of pilot programs). Without evidence from the pilot programs, there was a chance that programs could simply wind up being more costly without the subsequent payback.

Here’s another, from a 2009 Massachusetts Auditor’s review. The Auditor looked at the initial  cost-savings estimates by the Executive Office of Transportation and Public Works (EOTPW)  for replacing police officers with road flaggers on construction projects. The review found errors in the savings estimates in several projects. According to the auditor, “EOTPW created a ‘One Week Snapshot Summary Period,’ which was during the peak construction season, to examine savings and then multiplied these savings over the course of a year. EOTPW calculated an estimate of $157,632 for one week and used this to project annual savings of between $5.7 and $7.2 million for a year. We found errors in the “One Week Snapshot” resulting in $18,980 less in savings, which equates to a projection of $685,000 to $850,000 less (12%) over the course of a year.”

To be sure, it wasn’t as though the Massachusetts auditor uncovered a huge problem that would necessarily have made any changes to decisions about road flaggers. But the additional digging did make an important point about selecting time periods for calculating expenditures or revenues – one that could potentially be used in Massachusetts in a number of other cases. And that’s yet another estimable reason for reviewing past efforts; while the review may not come in time to remediate the uncovered mistakes, it can certainly help guard against repeating them.

The Texas Sunset Commission

In Texas, the so-called Sunset Commission has institutionalized its follow up practices more than most other states. Generally, the Legislature groups and schedules agencies for review by function to allow the Commission to examine all major state policies related to a particular function at once, such as health and human services or financial regulation. About 20 to 30 agencies go through the Sunset process each legislative session.

The glory of this particular approach is that if an agency is found not to be fulfilling the objectives the state had hoped for, a variety of steps can be taken, including elimination. Says Ken Levine, Executive Director, of the Commission, “We have done everything, from recommending abolishment of agencies that don't need to continue, down to every kind of merging of agencies, and in some cases expanding agencies functions when they are not authorized to do something that would help them do their job. We find things that have been rocking along for a long time on the status quo but have not had a really good look at how they could be operated better."

So, is the Sunset Commission a model for other governments? Not quite. Levine candidly explains that, “we're in the business of criticizing what prior legislatures have done. When we’re criticizing the law we are criticizing those who passed the law so it does create some headaches. The legislators who were the sponsors may object to recommendations made by the Sunset Commission and may get into debates. Not all of our recommendations make it through. The normal political battles go on. Each agency has the supporters of the legislation that created it, or supporters of government in general who object to the changes.”

The feds

At the federal level, there is no standard for after the-fact evaluations. Stan Czerwinski, the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s director of strategic issues explains that the GAO is sometimes asked by Congress to come in and look at selected areas, but that reviews of government activities will be in the hands of inspectors general and sometimes the agencies themselves.

The agency that seems to do the best job in this quarter, according to Czerwinski, is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which often creates after-action reports, examining the steps taken after a disaster and their results. That said, a recent report suggests that FEMA does not issue these reports after every action, and that FEMA could do a better job of compiling lessons learned and best practices from these reviews.

After all is said and done, it’s an unfortunate truth that we’ve simply been unable to uncover the governmental entity whose practices for after-the-fact oversight are beyond criticism. In fact, those places that take their work this extra step toward accountability deserve credit, despite any flaws in their approach. Meanwhile, for governments eager to proclaim themselves “Number One,” in something, the field for the Gold Medal is wide open here.


Image courtesy of adamr /