Measure Government Success by Effectiveness and Efficiency, not Effort

Oct 28, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

If Oklahoma wants to be a top 10 state, it is critical that its goals be clearly defined. Metrics used to measure that status must be selected carefully, and reasonably calculated to measure those things that actually make a state a good place to live. A state might pride itself on being first in the nation in hummingbirds per capita, but that is unlikely to appeal to any but the most avid birdwatchers. It is also important for a government to focus on those things it can control. The waterfalls of Yosemite, the majesty of the Grand Canyon, and the sands of Daytona Beach all make their home states attractive, but the governments of those states have nothing to do with the appeal, other than making them accessible. The methods used must also be appropriate to the ends sought. Even being the healthiest state in the country would be unattractive, if it were accomplished through a rigid be-healthy-or-be-jailed regime.

Oklahoma should strive to maximize economic opportunity, create a neutral playing ground that does not favor entrenched interests over new entrants to the field, and spend effectively and efficiently for essential, core services. Every program ought to have a clearly defined outcome, and programs that fail to meet their goals should be eliminated or restructured. 1889 has written previously on the kinds of metrics that should be used to test the effectiveness in these and other important areas, including some specific measurements.

The driving force behind all these suggested metrics is that government measure its effectiveness, not its effort. Any time anyone touts or laments the total money allocated to a program, it is a red flag that they may be focusing too much on effort. Of course, funding levels matter to a certain extent. Programs can’t exist without a sufficient baseline of money, but money cannot be the sole determination of whether a program is going in the right direction. Pouring money into a failing program without addressing the structural problems is like pouring water into a full glass: it’s nothing but waste. Better to divert it elsewhere, or save it.

That is not to say that cost is not an important part of measuring success. If one program costs $12 billion, and has a 95% effectiveness rate, while a comparable program would cost only $500 million and be 94% effective, it seems obvious that the legislature would do well to consider the latter. Efficiency measures that show the cost per unit of effectiveness are among the best tools for legislatures to evaluate whether to create or continue a program.

Instead, policymakers should focus on the outcomes of their programs. How much do students know when they leave our schools? What do successful schools have in common? Is the tax climate one that will encourage new businesses to open and move to Oklahoma, or do corporate welfare programs and overregulation entrench previously-successful businesses which have become too big and old to adapt and innovate? Does propping up these dinosaurs make sense in the face of new technology, or should they be forced to compete in a truly free market? Who would want to live in a place where cars cost too much because the distribution model is stuck, by law, in the 1950’s?

Perhaps the legislature should attach measurable goals to their bills. This would help evaluate whether the laws are effective. As a bonus, it would create transparency as to the true intent of the bill.

By Mike R. Davis, 1889 Institute Research Fellow