In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama said: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
It’s question state and local leaders in Minnesota must ask, too.
Minnesota citizens hold state government accountable for many of the public outcomes they care most about — quality education, good jobs, clean air and water, safe and reliable infrastructure, affordable healthcare and accessible public spaces.
But the truth is, we don’t have comprehensive ways to answer whether policies in those areas are working as well as we expected or are delivering sufficient bang for the buck.
More than ever, the public demands better performance and more accountability for results. Yet the realities of funding and delivering a wide range of services — through a complex, multi-layered web of providers to diverse constituencies — almost defy effective management, oversight and comprehension.
So we citizens tend to judge government’s performance by anecdote, cherry-picked statistics and isolated example — all seen through a veil of ideology, special interests and changing events. And when people can’t easily understand or trust information about how government is performing, the political climate encourages them to assume the worst.
An example of this distrust — or more positively, the cry for long-term accountability — can be seen in passage of constitutional amendments that dedicated state sales taxes to transportation, environment and the arts. Ballot measures to allocate or limit spending are a weak substitute for effective management of public assets. But absent a fiscal framework that inspires confidence and delivers the outcomes taxpayers want, voters will go with what they can get.
Budget review should look at more than dollars
With the state facing a massive budget shortfall, the discussion will inevitably focus on size — whether revenues are sufficient and which expenditures have priority. We can see the governor is heading toward tax cuts and program cuts. But lawmakers should not only look at program dollars. They should also ask whether budgets provide the ingredients to succeed, to reliably assess performance and to hold the right players accountable for future results.
Earlier this month, the state Budget Trends Study Commission offered recommendations supporting more informed budget and policy decisions. It was striking how much of its advice echoed eight prior fiscal advisory groups going back to 1984, and how much had been inconsistently implemented or ignored since then.
Eleven months ago, a group of state legislators outlined a set of principles and proposals aimed at better linking connecting policy goals, funding and results. The ideas were drawn in part from work on “governing with accountability” in progress at Growth & Justice. [Here's the report we produced in March.] The response from the news media and the public was somewhere between a yawn and silence.
But let’s assume that the current crisis finally has refocused our attention on making governments work better. What would be required to tackle this? How about these guiding principles, for starters?
Principles for governing with accountability
2. Long-term outlook and clear priorities. Partisan concerns are best transcended by raising our sights to agree upon a long-term vision for the state and the key indicators of success. Each year, we should report on our progress and set annual priorities for closing the gap. Follow-through on innovations and cost-saving opportunities too often fails when improvement efforts are not part of a larger, ongoing accountability framework.
3. Straight talk and open books. As anyone who has navigated the state’s financial reporting can attest, budget transparency isn’t the same as clarity. Bottom line, the public wants to know total cost of government, coupled with an honest assessment of how it is performing. A useful accounting must be fact-based, avoid gimmicks and include both direct expenditures and tax expenditures (which lower revenues through exemptions, deductions and incentives).
4. Fiscal responsibility. Consistent budget practices, asset stewardship, accurate cost projections and broad, fair taxation foster the revenue stability needed to provide effective and reliable services. As the Budget Trends Study Commission said, this is harder than it looks. The place to start is agreement on a strategic management framework and maintaining consistent practices over time.
5. Efficiency and effectiveness. No one, inside government or out, loves bureaucracy, red tape, duplication and waste. The governor has championed a “Drive for Excellence” initiative that adopts ideas of business enterprise transformation to streamline operations, and all levels of government have been chipping away at costs and becoming more customer focused for years. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially in the area of increased empowerment, flexibility and incentives that encourage performance and accountability of public employees.
6. Accountability for results. We like to talk about elected officials being accountable, but day-to-day, public services and other policy outcomes are delivered by a network of agencies, private service providers, non-profit program operators and various beneficiaries of subsidies and incentives. Governing with accountability makes all of these players accountable for delivering the results for which they received public funds.
By more rigorously defining policy intent, specifying expected outcomes and public benefit, and linking results to fact-based indicators, legislators and administrators have better ways to judge whether initiatives are working — and whether they should be revised or eliminated.
That’s a lot to take on in the midst of a budget typhoon. Probably the best we can ask this year is that lawmakers keep these principles in front of them as they make tough decisions.
But until the state better addresses the gaps between intent, implementation and outcomes, we can look forward to repeating this unpleasant cycle again and again.
— Charlie Quimby