The Cost-Benefit Imperative

A group of states is adapting a successful model to target scarce funds for the greatest return on investment.
by | February 1, 2012

While the states' revenues are beginning to recover, almost all of them expect to have less to spend in 2012 than they had in 2008, before the Great Recession began exacting its toll. Since then, many states have relied on across-the-board cuts, but others have looked for ways to make more strategic decisions that target funds toward programs and policies that yield the greatest benefits in the most cost-effective way.

Cost/benefit analysis can play a key role in helping government leaders make better decisions on allocating limited tax dollars. This technique estimates the long-term costs and benefits of potential investments in public programs, allowing policy makers to compare options and identify those that most effectively achieve outcomes (such as reducing crime, improving high-school graduation rates or reducing child maltreatment) at the lowest cost to taxpayers.

Cost/benefit analysis has been used to a limited degree at the federal level for many years. Some states, including Oregon, Georgia and New York, have used this technique to assess individual programs, such as evaluating whether an economic development incentive is cost-effective in creating jobs. But one state has developed an approach that goes much further.

Since the 1990s, legislators and executive agencies in Washington State have used a cutting-edge model to identify evidence-based policies that provide the best return on taxpayers' investment. The model was developed by the nonpartisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which the legislature created to analyze and provide data for policy makers.

The model goes far beyond traditional methods. It:

• Analyzes all available research across an entire policy area to systematically identify which programs work and which don't, rather than relying on a few studies or anecdotal evidence.

• Predicts the impact of policy options by applying the combined evidence of all sufficiently rigorous national studies to the state's own data.

• Calculates the potential return on investment of policy options, taking into account the effect on taxpayers, program participants and residents most directly affected in both the short and long term.

• Assesses the investment risk if the initial assumptions behind the estimates turn out differently than predicted.

• Ranks the projected benefits, costs and risks of all programs in a guide to policy options.

• Identifies ineffective programs that could be cut or eliminated so that policy makers can make strategic decisions instead of across-the-board reductions.

• Analyzes the combined benefits and costs of a package or "portfolio" of policies instead of judging each program separately.

• Works with legislators and the executive branch to make these analyses highly accessible for policy and budget decision-makers.

Washington State's most extensive experience with this model has been in the criminal-justice arena. Officials have used the analysis and recommendations generated by the model to direct funding toward proven crime-prevention and treatment programs. Those initiatives have contributed to a greater improvement in crime rates and juvenile-arrest rates compared with the national average, an incarceration rate lower than the national average, and savings of $1.3 billion per two-year budget cycle—eliminating the need to build new prisons and making it possible to close an adult prison and a juvenile-detention facility.

Legislators from both parties say the model has helped them get the best return on investment, transcend partisan gridlock, make decisions based on facts and choose options that are the most cost-effective in the long run, even if they are not the most politically appealing in the short term.

Adapting this cost/benefit approach in other states requires a strong commitment from policy makers. States must allocate staff resources to compile and analyze information on the costs and outcomes of their current programs. Most important, state leaders must be open to using evidence to guide policy and budget decisions, resisting the temptation to continue business as usual.

They must be willing to shift money away from ineffective programs toward those shown to be better uses of taxpayer dollars. This requires a more disciplined approach to budgeting, using the same hard-nosed assessments that businesses use to drive investment decisions.

Washington State has many years of experience with its highly sophisticated model of cost/benefit analysis, but until recently it has been pretty much on its own. That's beginning to change.

After conducting a thorough validation of the Washington State model by a national panel of experts, the Pew Center on the States is providing technical assistance to help states use this cost/benefit approach to inform their decision making. This effort, called Results First, was developed by Pew and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation with additional support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A pilot group of states—Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, New York, Texas and Vermont—has made this commitment and is working to adapt the Washington State model.

With budget pressures likely to persist for many years, evidence-based cost/benefit analysis that helps decision makers target spending will become even more imperative. The pilot efforts to adapt the Washington State model should provide valuable lessons to everyone concerned with making government more effective, especially in difficult times.

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