In my field of higher education, the big idea is assessment. Accreditors are requiring that we assess what we do; that is, that we give evidence for the quality and effectiveness of our programs and operations. Businesses too are measuring product quality and customer satisfaction. But there is almost no assessment of government programs. Very little data is gathered to determine whether or not a program works or fulfills its purpose. As a result, once a program is enacted, it is almost impossible to kill. But now some economists are proposing ways to bring assessment to the government.
From Jim Tankersley and Dylan Matthewsin the Washington Post:
At a time when the federal budget is increasingly squeezed — and lawmakers are wrestling with tough choices on what to cut or to keep — the government does very, very little to find out which programs produce the best results for the money spent on them.
There are several reasons for that, most wrapped up in politics. There’s no natural ideological constituency for program evaluations. Lawmakers who champion social programs often fear that attempts to measure them will be only thinly disguised excuses to kill the programs. Fiscal hawks don’t often love the idea of spending more money on evaluations.
But if Washington ever hopes to provide the services voters say they want, at the tax rates voters say they’re willing to pay, economists say the government will need to ramp up its efforts to figure out which programs work and which ones don’t, and shift resources accordingly.
“It’s pretty much a blanket statement that we throw money at lots of things and never really study what we’re getting for that money, and that’s a shame,” said Peter Orszag, who was President Obama’s first budget director.
That’s especially bad at a time when Washington is debating tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit, said Jeffrey Liebman, a Harvard economist and also a former Obama budget official. “It’s imperative to be able to show that the things [voters'] tax dollars are being spent on work, and that we’re trying to improve performance and do it in a data-driven way,” Liebman said. “That’s just good stewardship.”
A small but growing group of researchers and lawmakers is pushing to inject more measurement into the budget debate, Orszag and Liebman among them. On Wednesday, Liebman will unveil a paper at a conference sponsored by the Hamilton Project, an economics-focused program at the Brookings Institution, and Results for America, a relatively new effort that advocates for more evidence-based funding decisions in government; in it, he will call for a major increase in government efforts to improve the value of its spending programs.
Note the economist using the theological word “stewardship”!