Opinion

Accountability to taxpayers should be part of any ‘grand bargain’

Photo of Michele Jolin
Michele Jolin
Managing Partner, America Achieves

President Reagan famously called government the “people’s business” and noted that “every man, woman and child becomes a shareholder with the first penny of tax paid.” With every cent we pay, taxpayers are investors in the U.S. government and are affected by every spending decision made by our elected representatives.

As Republicans and Democrats debate spending priorities and tax policy while reviewing the president’s budget, lawmakers should be committed to making decisions that benefit taxpayers and create better results for our communities by setting new standards requiring government spending programs to produce the best possible return on taxpayers’ investment.

We will continue to debate Washington’s budget priorities, but this debate requires, finally, a greater emphasis on Washington’s real blind spot: its accountability problem. The current appropriations and budget process wastes millions of dollars every year on programs and projects that are no longer working, or continues to fund programs that never worked in the first place. At a time when benefits to retirees are on the table for cuts, and Americans are being asked to make huge sacrifices, it is simply no longer acceptable to blindly grant funding to programs without assessing their effectiveness or value to taxpayers and the public at large.

The sequester’s across-the-board cuts to programs regardless of their effectiveness further highlights the critical need for lawmakers to focus on maintaining funding decisions based on results and investing taxpayer dollars that can build long-term health for our economy. While budget cuts may be inevitable, it makes sense to direct cuts at those programs that can’t meet accountability standards.

This “invest in what works” approach is simple, common sense. In part because of our current budget squeeze, we are seeing a growing trend toward evidence-based funding at all levels of government, with mayors and governors across the country reserving funding for programs that prove their effectiveness and make a positive impact in their local communities.

At the federal level, results-oriented funding took its first meaningful steps as a policy priority under the George W. Bush administration. Through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Bush administration created the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) to measure the success of each program operating with government funds and used the information to inform future funding decisions.

The Obama administration has worked to build on the progress made by President Bush. In May 2012 the administration requested that federal agencies demonstrate evidence in budget requests. There also has been some movement in the U.S. Senate with a recent amendment offered by Senators Ron Wyden and Debbie Stabenow calling for increased “use of performance data” to drive reform and spending decisions on government-funded programs.

It is time for a new approach. Existing government funds should only be directed to programs that demonstrate real results; improve living standards; and benefit the economy, workforce and international competitiveness. And, there are programs currently demonstrating results, such as high-quality charter school replication and the pay-for-success model used by the Workforce Innovation Fund through the Department of Labor, but these programs represent only a small portion of the entire funding pie.

I am proud to be part of a new bipartisan initiative working to address these problems and make government as an investor more accountable to the taxpayer. Called Results for America, we are working with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and established thought leaders, to create clear standards and policy recommendations that will guide and inform government on how to make the best use of existing dollars. The establishment of a federal evidence and evaluation framework agreed to by both parties would be a great first step in moving this process forward.

This is not a partisan argument, it is an economic one. America has more people and fewer funds with no end in sight to increasing competition in global trade, economic development and workforce talent. Washington needs to show Americans that we are not spending their hard-earned dollars in vain, but that we are working toward solutions to create a better economy and more opportunities in the 21st century.

Michele Jolin is the managing partner of America Achieves and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.