Performance Auditors Lose Influence in Tight Times

Groups that assess the value of government programs inevitably make some enemies. That’s one reason the programs are always first on the chopping block.
 

We’ve been complaining about the decline in analytical capacity in the states and cities for some time now. We’ve written pieces, both in this space and in our online column, the B&G Report, lamenting cuts in Florida’s much-vaunted Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), elimination of the Oregon Progress Board and general cutbacks in the performance-auditing capacity nationwide.

We have connected this diminishment to the tough fiscal times states and localities face. Although that’s accurate, we may be minimizing another significant element in this phenomenon -- one that is much less savory than cost-cutting. Truth is, organizations that are empowered to find out if there’s real value to certain government expenditures can be mighty unpopular. This is especially so among the people who would otherwise be able to make those decisions based fundamentally on a program’s popularity among voters, political donors or other stakeholders. “When you take a performance evaluator that has been in existence for a long time, it has irritated and upset for decades just about every stakeholder,” says John Turcotte, former director of OPPAGA and head of the Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly. “When it is time to make cutbacks, there is a long line of people just waiting for a chance to do some damage.”

Take, for instance, the decision to defund the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center in the state’s 2010-2012 budget. The cost was a mere $1.1 million, but the state took the budget-crunch environment as an opportunity to take action. “When the Legislature created the center, it wanted independent information,” Reginald Meeks, a state representative and former chair of the board for the center, told us at the time. “Then, it became an issue that they were so independent.”

An editorial in the Lexington Herald-Leader at the time echoed those sentiments. “Today’s legislative leaders of both parties,” the editors wrote, “apparently are more interested in maintaining total control of their domain than hearing independent analysis.”

The real issue here is not that legislators and other state and city officials aren’t getting lots of information. Many justifiably complain of an information overload. No, the problem is the nature of the kind of information they get, and who they get it from. Turcotte puts a fine point on it: “Lobbyists and people with money and power have access to means of communication that are just amazing. They can publish and push their particular point of view. Without information from an objective source, they will get their way.”

For years, we were deeply involved in a task, dubbed the Government Performance Project (GPP), that may be familiar to many of you. It evaluated the success with which states managed their money, personnel, infrastructure and other areas. Some states were enthusiastic about the effort. Others (particularly those who didn’t fare well in the grading) were less so. But the one element that seemed to appeal to the broadest group of readers was the GPP’s independence from any kind of in-state forces. Even when people may have disagreed with conclusions reached, they were unable to attack them as partisan.

It’s critical that people in power hear about things that don’t work as well as those that do. Subordinates can be fearful to share concerns, and that leaves it to outside, independent groups to do that job. They can’t “just assume that everything is getting fixed and problems are getting resolved and the world is not just magically working in their favor all the time,” says Gary Blackmer, director of the Oregon Audits Division.

One of the most frustrating (at least to us) examples of the loss of independence and capacity among such groups has taken place in Florida’s OPPAGA. The organization’s budget has been repeatedly cut over the last few years. As Howard Rasmussen, formerly a senior management consultant in the Florida Center for Public Management, told us, “People will argue they had to make the cuts, but it is atrocious that you cut an agency whose sole purpose is to improve your performance.”

But the budget cuts aren’t even the worst news from the Sunshine State. This is: In the last legislative session, a decision was made to put OPPAGA’s budget in the hands of the legislative leadership. In the past, this independent research arm had a dedicated funding source in the state budget, which helped to ensure its capacity to strive for truth-telling. What’s more, the top job at OPPAGA used to be confirmed by both the House and the Senate and could only be removed by a vote of both chambers. Now, the director serves at the pleasure of the leadership. It’s too soon to state categorically that these changes mean OPPAGA will lose its capacity to speak truth to power, but the handwriting appears to be on the wall.

Some speculate that the diminution of OPPAGA’s independence may have been partially a result of studies that investigated the value of privatization. In addition, reports about the state’s Medicaid Welfare Reform Project, which demonstrated that there was little evidence that the effort actually saved money or improved quality or care, seem to have cost OPPAGA support in the House.

“Hypocrisy might be a bit strong,” the editors of Florida’s Sun Sentinel wrote in May, “but one has to wonder why the Florida Legislature, which seemed so insistent on new measurements for teachers, government employees and state agencies, turned around and severely weakened the one agency that measures the work of lawmakers.”

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