Designing for Success

Lawmakers can steer clear of costly and politically embarrassing boondoggles while devoting scarce funds to their most promising new programs.
by , , | March 22, 2011 AT 9:00 AM

It’s hard to imagine state lawmakers creating a slew of new government programs at a time when at least 45 states face budget shortfalls and governors across the country are weighing tough spending cuts.

But never underestimate the ingenuity of state and local lawmakers.

“Governors are trying big, bold ideas that they’ve never tried before,” Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire told Politico last month. “If nothing else, use the crisis as an opportunity to do big things.”

States are still the laboratories of democracy. From Harrisburg to Austin, state governments are working on fundamental redesigns of Medicaid and other costly entitlement programs. They’ll also continue to be fertile testing grounds for new solutions to pressing social and economic problems, from underperforming schools to crumbling infrastructure.

Of course, widespread fiscal crisis means that any new program idea -- or program redesign -- must be met with heightened scrutiny. Lawmakers are under increasing pressure to allocate funds only to ideas that are likely to work in the real world.

That’s why we developed the “Design for Success” tools, a kind of advance warning system to help policymakers sort program ideas with a high likelihood of success from those with serious design flaws. The tools were first published in February in a Center for American Progress report, “The Secret to Programs that Work.”

The Design for Success approach is a set of assessments to help officials identify which new government initiatives are most likely to succeed, and flag potentially wasteful ones before they’re approved for funding. Running through the assessment tools are a series of questions that should be asked of every proposed idea: Is this the right way to solve the problem? How do you know it will work? How will you implement it?

“Some of the [Design for Success] questions may be pretty basic,” former Virginia governor and now Sen. Mark Warner said at a Center for American Progress event last month. “But I would … give you ten-to-one odds that most of these questions have never been asked in a comprehensive way for any new government program.”

So how would an evaluation of new programs work under the Design for Success model?

With input from over 200 federal and state government officials and outside performance experts, we compiled a set of common design flaws in unsuccessful government programs. These flaws informed a set of six basic questions that should be asked for every new program:

o    Are the program’s goals clear and cost estimates accurate?

o    Is this the right approach to address the problem?

o    What evidence is there that the program is likely to achieve its goals?

o    Does the program establish the right incentives?

o    Is the implementation phase likely to be successful?

o    How will the program monitor success?

These questions are only helpful if they’re asked early in the program-creation process. That’s why we spent almost as much time working with our expert community on how to implement the tools as we did designing the tools themselves.

Here’s the process we devised:

First, the proponent of a new government initiative in either the legislature or an agency develops a proposal, using a checklist of 31 aspects of good program design. When the proposal is ready for further review, the proponent completes a form that probes the six key components of a successful program described above.

A neutral party then reviews the proponent’s answer and completes another form to assess the program’s likelihood of success. The cumulative information gathered is then passed along to decision makers in the legislative and the executive branch, to guide their own scrutiny.

The process seems simple, but it marks a fundamental shift from the way most states develop programs today.

Without a formal mechanism for asking essential design questions, many large government initiatives with fatal design flaws have slipped through the cracks. Just as architectural designs can look good on paper but falter in the real world, poorly designed programs are often a blueprint for disaster.

Consider California’s electricity deregulation from the late 1990s, one of the biggest policy fiascos in recent times. Democratic and Republican lawmakers in 1996 cooperated on a major redesign of the state’s electricity markets. The reforms were intended to introduce competition, spur innovation, and lower the cost of electricity.

They were a spectacular failure. The new law caused soaring prices, rolling blackouts, and led to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. A government reform initiative launched with high hopes had turned into a disaster, because of faulty program design.

With budgets tightening, states can no longer afford to make avoidable mistakes. Implementing a process like Design for Success is one concrete way governors and state legislatures can flag critical design flaws before bills are passed and implementation begins.

To be sure, it will not be easy. It will require a culture change in statehouses. The current political process tends to focus on public perception and the political consequences for key stakeholders, making it difficult for questions of workability and implementability to find their way into the debate.

But the opportunity makes it worth the challenges: Lawmakers can steer clear of costly and politically embarrassing boondoggles while devoting scarce funds to their most promising new programs.

Design for Success – the process: