What the federal government can learn from the state of Connecticut

Tuesday - 3/4/2014, 2:00am EST

Rep. Diana Urban's column is part of Federal News Radio's special report, Now or Never: Ideas to Save the Failing Budget Process, in which eight budget experts offer their take on what can be done to fix the broken system.

Commentary by Rep. Diana Urban (D)
State of Connecticut Representative

Diana Urban on In Depth with Francis Rose.

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How to harness the federal budget process so that it actually works for the people is a daunting task. The sheer size of the numbers makes any meaningful discussion challenging. This combined with the complexity of budget solutions promulgated by various think tanks does not bode well for the legislator trying to make sense of and influence the budget process.

Diana Urban (D), State of Connecticut Representative

Legislators invariably make campaign promises to ferret out programs that "don't work." Quite quickly they find out that establishing what programs are not working is a moving target at best. Agency heads are clear that their programs are definitely working and would work even better if they were given more money.

Enter the "incremental budget." Legislators pass programs that somehow develop a life of their own. After the program has been passed, rarely is it revisited and the question asked; Is this program actually working? The program enters the great abyss of the budget base and becomes a permanent part of that base. Rarely do these programs get discussed as the focus is on new programs or on an across-the-board cut to reach a target arbitrarily set to balance the budget. These across-the-board cuts can impact programs that are actually working as well as the deadwood that has languished in the budget base for protracted periods of time. This is not a very responsive or progressive system, and, in the worst case scenario, we are actually building a structural deficit into the budget.

Granted, there have been herculean efforts to introduce performance standards to the federal budget process. These have enjoyed some limited success and some outright failures. Performance budgeting goes under many different guises: Planned-Programming Budgeting, Performance-Based Budgeting, Budgeting for Outcomes, Zero-Based Budgeting and so on. They all share a common characteristic and that is their level of complexity. These are not systems that lend themselves to a quick study. You cannot cram the night before as many of us did in college and expect to have a working knowledge of any of these systems. In fact, they really require a few courses to achieve mastery, not something legislators have the time or inclination to pursue.

Is there a system out there that promulgates a unique, simple and effective process to get us from talk to action quickly and with consensus? One that legislators can be active participants in without spending long periods of time learning the process? There is and it is called Results-Based Accountability. It is a two-step process that is based on simple language that can be understood by the average "Joe" on the street. However, it does offer a structure that allows for a meaningful discussion on the ends we are trying to achieve and if we are getting close to achieving those ends.

RBA starts with a "population result," which rests on consensus about quality of life. RBA is about creating a shared vision that identifies quality-of-life results that we deem important. Results like "affordable health care for all citizens" or "access to quality jobs that earn a living wage." Once these quality-of-life results are identified, RBA requires a collaborative discourse among a host of partners recognizing that no one agency or NGO can unilaterally achieve the desired outcome. RBA fosters a process that is collaborative instead of confrontational.

Once we choose the quality-of-life result, it becomes a touchstone, a way of directing the conversation back to what we are actually trying to achieve. The quality-of-life statement is then used to choose indicators, baselines and strategies to establish parameters that let us know whether programs are getting us closer to the result we are trying to achieve. This is, in essence, working backwards from ends to means. We have established the end we want to achieve and then we establish the means to let us know if we are getting there.

Once we actually know where we want to go, we are ready for the second step in the process: drilling down into those pesky programs to see if they are working. The first question to be answered is whether the program is contributing to the result we are trying to achieve. Sounds too simple, but it is amazing how often we stray from the path that was established in some other budget.

We then examine three basic RBA questions: How much did you do, how well did you do it and is anyone better off? These are all data-based questions. It is no surprise that the most popular question is the "how much?" Everyone loves to count things but without the next two questions the "how much" is pretty meaningless. If we were examining an apprenticeship program to see if it was working, the "how much" measure of say 200 people participated in the program doesn't tell us a lot. It is the "how well" measure that starts to give us valuable information — what percentage of people actually completed the program in a timely fashion and got a job could be one "how well" measure. The "better off" measure is where the proverbial rubber hits the road and in this example could be, "Did the job lead to long-term employment at a living wage?" That leads us right back to our population quality-of-life results of "access to quality jobs that earn a living wage."

With these data points it becomes possible to actually know whether a program is working. Once we know a program is working, then a discussion about the cost of the program becomes meaningful. If it is clear that the program is not working, then it is time to reallocate resources to one that is. The beauty of the RBA model is the quality-of-life result that reminds us what we are trying to achieve and the accessibility and the clarity of the three basic questions that tell us whether a program is working. It creates a forum for discussion in which everyone can participate.

In Connecticut, we have developed a template that is two pages long. There is also software that is extremely user friendly. The federal budget is huge, but it can be broken down into its component parts and those parts can be examined using RBA. The idea is to foster cooperation and collaboration. I am a believer in starting small and achieving success and then bringing the program to scale. A pilot project in an agency would be a perfect beginning.

Diana Urban (D) represents the 43rd Assembly District in the Connecticut House of Representatives, where she is the co-chair of the Results Based Accountability Sub Committee of the Appropriations Committee.