Taking Stock of Public Programs and Priorities

Political leaders have ample incentives to propose new ideas, but do they have equal incentives to revisit and review existing claims and programs?
August 30, 2006 AT 3:00 AM
Paul Posner
By Paul L. Posner  |  Contributor
The late director of the public administration program at George Mason University

As our summer vacation winds down at wonderful Cape May, New Jersey, I am struck by the opportunity that these occasions present for reflection and reappraisal about our lives. Similar to the ushering in of the new year, vacations prompt some of us to take a fresh look at our lives, careers, homes, or other important facets of our lives, as we prepare for a busy fall season. Such stocktaking is a healthy part of growth, maturation and adaptation.

Do we have a comparable process for governments -- a period of reappraisal, reexamination, and reflection about our priorities, policy choices, and program design and management? Such occasions do occur -- State of the Union and State of the State messages and annual budget presentations are highly anticipated opportunities for political leaders to announce new initiatives and policy proposals.

While political leaders have ample incentives to propose new ideas, do they have equal incentives to revisit and review existing claims and programs? Let's hope so. Many current programs and policies, in fact, were designed decades ago to respond to trends of an earlier time. As we enter a new century, we have been reminded of how much has changed in the past several decades -- whether it be rapid shifts in the security threats facing the nation, the aging of our population, the globalization of economic transactions, escalating health care costs, increased environmental concerns, or the significant advances in technologies and transportation systems. Review and oversight of existing claims offers the potential to weed out programs with weak claims while updating and reforming those that are still relevant to a changing nation. The GAO has argued that our long-term fiscal challenges will call for more frequent reexamination of existing programs, as political leaders struggle to finance the exploding health care and retirement costs of the baby boom while addressing new needs for federal action stemming from a growing and changing society.

However, many would argue that political leaders do not have sufficient incentives to review the base of existing programs and operations. Oversight is not viewed as a politically rewarding activity for many political leaders, particularly when compared to such alternatives as championing new initiatives or finding ways to claim credit for delivering benefits to key groups of claimants. While budgets can potentially serve to assess tradeoffs among existing programs, for the most part, federal and state budget processes assume the base of programs as a given, focusing disproportionate attention on incremental changes in funding.

Reviewing and reforming existing claims entails high political costs for any leader. Existing programs have powerful stakeholders who become wedded to current benefits and policy frameworks. The costs of change are more apparent to the concentrated constituencies benefiting from programs, while the benefits of such initiatives are more diffuse and longer term. The opportunity costs of failing to use resources on alternatives with higher payoffs are simply not represented by any interest group!

While oversight has arguably never been fashionable, institutional trends in legislatures at federal and state levels have arguably made oversight and review even less feasible. As perpetual campaigns erode the line between campaigning and governing, political leaders increasingly must act in a relentless media and interest-group fishbowl. The growing polarization between our parties has also served to politicize more issues that may have once prompted bipartisan inquiry and deliberation. In the U.S. Congress, members spend far more time in constituencies than in Washington; the numbers of committee and subcommittee meetings alone declined from an average of 5,300 in the 1960s and 1970s to 2,100 in the last Congress.

Let me hasten to add that oversight and reviews are not politically impossible events in our system. At the federal level, there have been exemplary cases where both parties joined in achieving major reviews and reforms of existing programs. In recent decades, 1996 farm reform, welfare reform, 1983 social security reform, and 1986 tax reform illustrate what can be achieved. Certainly, Congress and state legislatures perform oversight hearings on executive agencies as well, when such activities are calculated to bring political visibility and credit.

While such reforms illustrate that reviews and reforms can be achieved episodically, can they be institutionalized as a routine feature of our governance process? Other nations have undertaken comprehensive reexamination initiatives that have led to significant changes in priorities, according to the OECD, either as a one-time event or recurring set of reviews. In the Netherlands, reviews of targeted program areas have been a regular feature of the budget for over 20 years, leading to important reforms and savings. States have piloted sunset reviews and performance-budgeting exercises that have yielded promising results at times. The state of Washington, for instance, adopted a results-based approach to budgeting, reviewing the relative contribution of existing programs to 11 broader performance goals, which helped the state close a $2.4 billion shortfall in the 2003-05 biennium.

The states' experiences have inspired national leaders to consider proposals to institutionalize sunset reviews at the federal level, but the states' experiences suggest caution is in order. Although nearly all states have had a sunset process at some point in recent decades, 16 have terminated their process due to the high costs and relatively minimal impact of these processes on decisions. The checkered federal experience with commissions is also instructive. While the base closures commission is frequently cited as a successful example of a process fostering review of existing commitments, other federal commissions have died on the shoals of political indifference and narrow support. This suggests that process "fixes" can summon the necessary political will to review programs if political leaders need the cover of such a process to bring about change. However, such process reforms should not be expected to make political water run uphill.

As with all else, there are no easy fixes or low-hanging fruit and no substitute for making hard choices among politically compelling priorities.

Paul Posner
Paul L. Posner | Contributor