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The Paradoxical Truth About Efficiency Commissions

Many states have them, but few evaluate whether efficiency commissions are themselves efficient.

Over time, many states and cities have established so-called “efficiency commissions” in efforts to get the most out of the dollars they spend. Very recently, New Hampshire issued a report from such a commission that included business people, agency representatives and labor unions. It was run by a former CEO of the high-tech firm Autodesk. The report includes 18 recommendations.

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One of the recommendations is to establish a workforce strategy task force to “develop a five-year human capital strategy for the state government workforce.” This task force would look closely at improving the state’s personnel classification system. The report also recommends that the governor create an innovation and efficacy fund for $3 million over the next two years. Another recommendation is an annual $500,000 investment in a fund to support transparency efforts in the state.

This is all exciting stuff. But what’s the likelihood that recommendations like these will result in real action? 

Obviously, that varies from state to state and commission to commission. But in New Hampshire, which establishes an efficiency commission almost every time a new governor assumes office, only about 10 percent of the recommendations actually get real traction, according to the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, which estimates that there have been about a half a dozen such commissions over the last twenty years. 

Going beyond New Hampshire, we took a look at other states' efficiency commissions and found a few interesting trends. In just the last five years, commissions have been underway in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Overall, the majority of efficiency commission reports we located were either issued during and immediately after the Great Recession or following the recession of the early 2000s. In fact, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 26 state commissions of this kind were funded and established by either the executive or legislative branches as a direct response to the Great Recession.

This makes sense. In times when the state can pay its bills with the revenues coming in, there’s less pressure to create a far more efficient government. But when times are hard, and elected officials are loathe to raise taxes or cut services, it’s a very appealing option to try to get more bang out of each buck spent.  

But only a handful of states appear to go back to see what the impact of its commissions has actually been. Most states never do any kind of “call-to-accounting” to see whether or not recommendations were implemented or made a difference. Without this kind of self-evaluation, states are left without the information they need to make sure that subsequent commissions continue to provide more value to the state.

What's more, public awareness of the utility of these commissions would dissuade politicians from establishing more commissions and force them to just make decisions. Over the course of 2002 and 2003, for example, Idaho came out with 100 recommendations for the state as part of its Blue Ribbon Task Force. By 2011, the state was considering launching another effort (the state loves such commissions; it has had seven since 1919.) But, as Rakesh Mohan, the head of the Idaho legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, wrote at the time, “It would be useful for policymakers to reassess [the most recent report] before deciding whether a new commission is needed.”

Mohan told us that his counsel was not followed and it also doesn’t appear that the state has embarked upon creating another efficiency-related report since then. It’s a real pity that the state didn’t pick up on his advice. We think it’s a good idea, not just in Idaho, but all states.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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