February 26, 2010

At issue: value of program oversight

— BY SUSAN M. COVER

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — In five years, lawmakers and bureaucrats have implemented just under half of the recommendations generated by an office created to evaluate state government and suggest ways to make it work better.

The rate of success is leading some to ask: Just how effective is the office charged with determining whether state programs are, well, effective?

''It really has been a disappointment to me, in that it hasn't performed,'' Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said. ''It hasn't established itself as a real tool for finding efficiency in state government.''

Diamond is Senate chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the Government Oversight Committee, which oversees the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

He said the office has potential but that it must refocus to be more helpful to lawmakers, who are less likely than department managers to embrace its suggestions.

''The potential is there ''I like the concept of it,'' Diamond said, adding that there's no move to disband or alter the office.

A bill to create the program evaluation office was approved in 2002 and it officially opened in January 2005.

It was controversial from the start, with some Democrats opposing creation of a new office at a time when state government was struggling financially.

But many Republicans and a few Democrats kept pushing, saying lawmakers needed an independent, nonpartisan office dedicated to determining how well state programs were working.

At the time, more than 40 other states had similar offices.

Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, emerged as the program's most vocal supporter.

He also sits on the oversight committee, but unlike Diamond, he believes the office has done what the Legislature asked it to do.

Still, Trahan said now is a good time to consider changing its mission -- rather than taking months to evaluate the effectiveness of state programs, the office must be faster and more focused on finding budget savings, he said.

''It's time to consider structuring the office in a way that can help us with budget shortfalls,'' he said.

That may mean hiring outside consultants who can look at a particular question and come back quickly with recommendations, Trahan said.

The office has seven full-time positions but is keeping one vacant because of state budget cuts, Director Beth Ashcroft said.

Since July 2004, the state has spent $3.3 million to support the office, which has produced 23 reports on everything from bed capacity at the Riverview Psychiatric Center to the effectiveness of economic development programs.

Ashcroft, whose contract is under review by legislators, said she released a comprehensive report on the office earlier this month assessing its performance.

''My purpose in issuing a report like this was to be a model for transparency and accountability and show what it might look like if legislators were getting this kind of information on government functions,'' she said.

A former Central Maine Power Co. auditor, Ashcroft created the program evaluation office from the ground up.

She said the statute governing the office is broad and has led lawmakers to have a variety of expectations.

Ashcroft said some want the office to find ways to save money, others want to know whether programs are effective, and still others want to better understand how complicated government programs, such as MaineCare, work.

''For those who were expecting cost savings, I can't tell you I can point to anyplace where I can say, 'That got cut out of the budget because of work we've done,''' she said. ''Are there places where we could save money? Yes. I think we've given them lots of ideas.''

But putting those ideas into action is not easy.

Of the 132 recommendations made by the office from January 2005 to December 2009, just under half -- 63 -- have been implemented.

The recommendations, which are made specifically either to the Legislature or agency managers.

Bureaucrats adopted 46 of 81 recommendations, or 57 percent, while lawmakers followed through on 17 of 50, or 34 percent.

''We still have not nailed down what it is that's going to help the Legislature implement these things,'' Ashcroft said, citing term limits and a part-time citizen lawmakers as possible impediments.

Trahan said some legislators are unfamiliar with what the office -- referred to as OPEGA at the State House halls -- is there to do.

''I think there's still a lot of individual legislators who don't understand it,'' he said.

When it comes to finding savings, Ashcroft said her office has studied the reasons behind overpayments and unnecessary expenditures, and recommended ways to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

For example, Ashcroft estimates that the state could have avoided spending $16 million to fix a Department of Health and Human Services computer system if the state's information technology department had played a role in its design.

Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton, another member of the oversight committee, said he's happy with the progress made by the office.

''Some folks hoped it would be more aggressive,'' he said. ''In some states, similar bodies have been given a much bigger stick.''

Nass, who also serves on the oversight committee, said that, given the office's turbulent roots and recent efforts to cut funding, it has done well.

''I've been here long enough to know the real political landscape,'' he said. ''The majority party didn't think we needed it.''

In 2008, Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, then majority leader, supported cutting the office's staff from seven to two and moving it under the Office of Fiscal and Program Review.

The proposal was ultimately abandoned.

Mitchell, one of several Democrats running for governor, said Friday she supports the office and wants to find a way to make it more effective.

''At this point, we're in the most severe recession and this budget is crying for guidance in terms of which programs are performing,'' she said. ''Everybody wants it to work.''

She said the office needs to be strengthened so it becomes the state-level equivalent of the federal Office of Management and Budget.

''We have not seen the savings we were all looking for,'' she said. ''All of us had hoped it would pay for itself.''

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@centralmaine.com

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