MONTPELIER — At a briefing for legislators recently, House Speaker Shap Smith asked them to consider what has become something of a mantra around the State House these days: “How much did we do? How well did we do it? And is anyone better off?”
The questions aren’t meant to be rhetorical.
“As we’re thinking about issues around the budget, around health care, I’d ask people to really orient themselves around those questions … and think about them as a frame for how we’re going to make our decisions next year,” Smith said.
But answers have been elusive. And lawmakers and administration officials hope the arrival of new software and more accurate performance measurements will enable the results-based budgeting on which they say good fiscal management relies.
“This is about the money we’re spending accomplishing the things we want it to do,” Sen. Diane Snelling said during a hearing of the Government Accountability Committee last month.
Snelling, a Chittenden County Republican, has led the charge for an outcomes-based budgeting framework since the infamous “Challenges for Change” spending reduction exercise of 2009. That initiative, which sought to reduce government expenditures without affecting the programs or services they fund, didn’t earn high marks from legislators or advocates.
But lawmakers are hopeful that a pilot program set to begin during the next fiscal year will allow for more honest and empirical analyses of government programs, and more accurately measure the bang that policymakers are getting for taxpayers’ bucks.
The pilot program follows the successful implementation of a new software system for the state budget that has enhanced data tracking capabilities.
The first phase of the project will measure outcomes in only 13 line items at 11 government departments, including the Department of Liquor Control and the Department of Public Health. Each department will choose three metrics it thinks best signify the success or failure of a specific program, then measure and track progress in those areas.
Rep. David Sharpe, a Bristol Democrat and member of the Government Accountability Committee, said the project’s success hinges on policymakers’ ability to find the right variables to track.
“At the Department of Liquor Control, for example, is the measure going to be how many bars you close? Or how many people you arrest on DWIs?” Sharpe asked. “I would be looking for reducing illegal drinking as the goal. And so the measure of that isn’t necessarily how many arrests you’ve made, but some other measure of drinking habits.”
Matt Riven, budget director at the Department of Finance and Management, said the challenge lies in finding ways to isolate a program’s impact on the societal conditions or behaviors that government spending is intended to improve.
“I can tell you there is already a tension between outcomes and outputs, in the sense that the departments are very anxious to present to you what they view as their good outputs. They have been tasked to do certain activities, and they very much want to show you how well they have done those activities,” Riven told the Government Accountability Committee. “I know from having been in this discussion with you all in the past that the Legislature is much more interested in outcomes, and how is this reducing the social problem that is trying to be solved.”
Sharpe and other legislators say that if government can accurately measure the relative success of various government initiatives, then they can redistribute money to the highest-achieving areas.
Department heads will tell lawmakers the outcomes they want to track after Gov. Peter Shumlin unveils his fiscal 2015 budget proposal in mid-January. Legislators say they may want to tweak those proposals.
Riven said “there is some nervousness on the parts of departments” about how data gathered in the process might be used to undermine confidence in certain programs.
Rep. Anne O’Brien, a Richmond Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee, said her panel is looking to work with government managers, not against them.
“This isn’t about critiquing people or saying they’re doing a bad job or coming in with the wrong measures,” O’Brien said. “It’s a collaborative process. We have to work at getting to what’s the right thing.”
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