“What Works” Budgeting

Time for the Federal Government to Step Up

The Obama administration should adopt the “Reviewing What Works” process for evaluating program effectiveness, write Jitinder Kohli and John Griffith.

The Legislative Building at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which was created by the state legislature in 1983, provides a proven model for data-driven legislative decision-making. (AP/ Ted S. Warren)
The Legislative Building at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which was created by the state legislature in 1983, provides a proven model for data-driven legislative decision-making. (AP/ Ted S. Warren)

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama in September 2008 promised to make budget decisions based on program performance. The then-senator said he would “go through the entire federal budget, page by page, line by line,” and “eliminate the programs that don’t work and aren’t needed.”

Two and a half years later, the fiscal year 2012 budget marks President Obama’s first wave of tough fiscal choices. In response to a $1.5 trillion deficit, the president proposed 211 terminations and reductions for more than $33 billion in the fiscal year beginning in October. This includes eliminating 76 government programs across 17 agencies.

The federal government’s tight fiscal situation requires difficult choices. The Obama administration deserves praise for its willingness to propose reforms or cuts to programs that have important constituencies of support. But how did the administration decide which programs to cut?

Each proposed termination or reduction in the budget document boasts a brief justification but the process within the government was far from systematic. Agencies proposed programs they thought might be candidates, budget examiners in the Office of Management and Budget had their own list, and a negotiation followed.

We believe that government needs a better process for deciding which budget lines to terminate or trim. It needs a comprehensive system to review the performance and impact of all programs to guide future budget decisions.

So how do we know which of the 110 programs for science, technology, and math education are most effective? What about the more than 100 programs on youth mentoring? Which ones work best and which ones need to be reconsidered?

That’s why we developed the “Reviewing What Works” tools, a process including practical tools for evaluating the effectiveness of government programs. They are part of a recent Center for American Progress report entitled “The Secret to Programs that Work.”

The tools include a series of questions that should be asked of every existing program. With input from scores of government performance experts and federal and state government officials, we compiled a set of six basic questions:

  • What goals across the government is the program contributing to?
  • What impact does the program have on achieving those goals?
  • Does the program work well with other programs to maximize collective impact and minimize duplication?
  • How cost effective is the program compared to others?
  • Is the program well run? Have there been delays or cost overruns at the program?
  • Does the program learn from experience and improve in response?

We also developed a process for these questions to be asked and answered.

Since the federal government tends to work in semi-independent silos, we took an interagency approach to these evaluations. So the first step in the Reviewing What Works process is the creation of “interagency panels” around particular program areas such as homelessness, food safety, or workforce training. These panels should include staff from relevant agencies, program managers, and budget staff. They might also benefit from the involvement of notable academics and other outside experts.

Each interagency panel’s first task is to agree on common outcome goals in that program area. So for homelessness, the panel may agree to eliminate veteran homelessness over five years or end homelessness for children in 10 years. (The Obama administration has already adopted both of these goals.)

The panel then compiles a list of all current federal programs that are working toward achieving these goals. With that inventory complete, the evaluation stage begins.

Here’s how it would work. For each program on the list, program managers fill out a questionnaire that goes through the six questions above in some detail. They then take that information back to the interagency panel, which uses the information to assess each program’s effectiveness relative to other programs with similar goals. The interagency panel then records the information on a separate tool (see inserts).

Reviewing What Works—the process

Excerpt from RWW

The process we propose is driven by interagency panels—effectively peers and experts who take the time to establish common goals across a group of programs and then evaluate their relative effectiveness. They have no direct authority over budget decisions but their assessment will help agencies and OMB examiners determine the best way to use scarce federal resources.

To be sure, implementing the Reviewing What Works evaluations will not be easy. Many bureaucracies may find it unnatural to take an interagency approach to assessing the effectiveness of programs. And it may be difficult at first for panels to agree on common goals and performance standards with real-world budget implications. But Washington simply cannot afford to continue making critical budget decisions in silos.

In a few weeks, OMB will turn its attention to developing the budget for FY 2013, which begins in October of next year but requires plenty of advance planning. As it does so, we urge it to adopt the Reviewing What Works tools and process so there is a better understanding of which programs are most effective and which ones are most in need of reform or elimination. The administration can start by testing these interagency reviews in a few policy areas, tweaking the model along the way, and eventually scaling it across the government based on what has proven effective.

As Washington faces increasingly tight budgets in the coming years, we can expect deeper program cuts in the future. We believe OMB and agencies need a better process to decide what’s working and what’s not. It’s time for serious fiscal conversations framed around equally serious performance measurements.

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress working on the Center’s Doing What Works project. John Griffith is a Research Associate with the project.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow

John Griffith

Policy Analyst