Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the budget problems running rampant across all levels of government. Federal, State and Local Governments are all facing historic budget shortfalls due to the economic crisis and decreased tax receipts. This has led to a much closer examination of services and programs that governments provide.
Part of this process is looking at one of the BIG E's: Efficiency. For instance, how many unemployment claims were filed last month? How many people applied for social services benefits this quarter? How many have been released from prison due to budget cuts? What number of police will be available in a community?
Most of our government funded programs have focused on rather simple quantitative measures of efficiency to determine value. In transportation departments, they might measure accidents per vehicle miles traveled. In Emergency Management Mitigation programs maybe it’s number of homes bought, or physically elevated to reduce flood risk. We evaluate prisons on number of beds filled. Our probation officers are measured by the number of visits paid to parolees and caseload. These measurements tell us little about whether or not the programs are (here comes the other BIG E): Effective.
Not having those answers allows for citizens to easily point the finger at government being in-Effective.
These measures tell us how many things we have paid for with our taxes. What none of them really describe is what we are getting for these numbers. For instance, recidivism costs go far beyond the simple price of housing an inmate. Associated with the crime that puts the offender back in prison may be property damage costs, trial costs, health care and others. In addition, we should include in our costs of recidivism the amount of money that we lose as a result of the citizen not contributing to society. Keep the person out of prison and gainfully employed, and they’re a tax payer. They contribute to the system instead of being a drain on it.
Considering all this, can we take a comprehensive look at our prison approach and determine the best method of handling prisoners so that, once they are released, they have the best chance at contributing to society? If being in prison once means you are very likely to return, and the costs associated with that return were more clearly stated, would we have an entirely different approach to our theory of crime and punishment? Would it be cheaper, more effective and better for society? And, can those costs be projected out long term to assess the comprehensive impact of alternatives to incarceration?
Measures of efficiency are important but it requires more complete analysis, and looking beyond what is easily measured, to truly gauge effectiveness. Analyzing programs as a regular part of the budgeting process, projecting costs and savings and including societal impacts as a result of the programs could lead to a more complete picture of our budget. Modeling outcomes of programs and accounting for lifelong costs and savings will give us a comprehensive picture of the impacts the government has every day. It will assist decision makers in being more informed, transparent and thoughtful in their policy making decisions.
Budget deficits are causing governments to take a hard look at the programs and services they provide. Using data to help governments understand the outcomes instead of just the outputs will help ensure money is spent in the most effective areas and helps support fiscal responsibility at a time when we need it most.