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MLC session focuses on how states can spend tax dollars more wisely

by Jennifer Ginn ~ 2014 MLC Annual Meeting Edition ~ Stateline Midwest »
State budgets are filled with funding for hundreds, if not thousands, of programs that cover everything from juvenile justice to early education. But do those programs work?
That’s the question state policymakers should be asking, said Gary VanLandingham, director of the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative. He was one of the featured speakers during a session on smart spending at the 2014 Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting in July.
The Results First Initiative, he says, is a “Consumer Reports guide” to state budgeting.
And it begins simply enough, with buy-in from state policymakers who say, “Let’s preserve our most effective programs and cut things that don’t really work.”
“Everyone smiles and nods their heads,” VanLandingham said. “The next question that comes up [is], How do we tell which is which?”
Many state agencies are required to report certain statistics — such as how many people are served each year — but those figures do little to help evaluate a program’s return on investment.
“Most states have evaluation offices,” he said, “but they have a handful of people and they can only do a handful of evaluations in a year. If they can do 15 evaluations a year but you’re funding several thousand programs, then it will be several generations before they’re all evaluated.”
The Results First Initiative is currently working in 15 states — including Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Wisconsin — to help policymakers. Its goal is to establish an improved method of budgeting based on a more thorough data analysis of state programs and then incorporating evidence-based practices.
The results can be dramatic.
Adrea Turner, a senior associate for Results First, said New Mexico has shifted close to $50 million in funding toward evidence-based programming in its early-education, welfare and criminal justice programs.
“None of the states I’ve worked with have an inventory of their programs,” Turner said. “When you start there, you’re able to make some important decisions even before you get to the fancy cost-benefit analysis.”
According to VanLandingham, states have typically only needed to dedicate two full-time-equivalent people to the Results First project.
“It needs to be someone that has the technical skills to do it ... and someone you think is an honest broker,” he said, “because you have to be able to trust it.”