by Joseph Coletti
Senior Fellow, Fiscal Studies, John Locke Foundation
I am thankful for the efforts of my friend John Turcotte to make North Carolina state government more accountable. He built upon and enhanced the state’s reputation for good government with his leadership of the second Government Performance Audit Committee (GPAC II) and its successor, the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division (PED). His legacy is not diminished by legislative leadership’s decision to redirect those efforts. If anything, Turcotte should be glad that program evaluation is applied even to PED itself.
North Carolina government program evaluation actually has a long history, dating back at least to the Brookings Institution’s recommendations to reorganize state government in 1930. The modern landmark is the original GPAC, which evaluated state government from 1991 to 1993 and produced volumes of reports and recommendations, many of which went unimplemented for years. State Auditor Beth Wood has used her office to great effect with rapid evaluations of the Department of Transportation’s cash crisis and the state’s $70 million COVID-response summer school effort in 2020.
I worked on the North Carolina Government Efficiency and Reform (NC GEAR) initiative under Gov. Pat McCrory, and our team sought to supplement and complement PED and the Auditor’s office. We had a broader scope and a smaller staff, but we also had a team of excellent consultants and more ability to turn ideas into results. From our initial 21 recommendations, at least 14 have been implemented by agencies or through legislation. When Gov. Roy Cooper announced that North Carolina was joining the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative in 2017, remaining NC GEAR team members joined North Carolina Results First in the Office of State Budget and Management, where they identify programs that provide a positive net return on state investments.
Even the best ideas need an occasional revision. “We all want progress,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “[but] if you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
Closing PED and staffing up the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations (GovOps) with partisan staff for both the majority and minority parties might be the reform needed to address three shortcomings of PED since it began in 2008.
Because PED’s work schedule was set by the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, it could not quickly change direction to answer time-critical questions. Legislative direction also led PED to examine minor issues like the perennial bugaboo of how cell phones are used by state employees.
PED repeatedly examined state vehicles for agencies and motor pool before 2013 with recommendations for new procedures and more oversight. In contrast, the Department of Administration and NC GEAR were able to implement new rules for agency vehicles and eliminate the state motor pool in favor of shared contracts with private vendors by 2015. Those reforms did not need legislation to save money and improve value for state employees with a short-term need.
One of PED’s points of pride was that it provided model legislation to address one or more of the problems identified in each report. Those narrowly targeted recommendations had to receive support from the committee and each chamber of the General Assembly. Regardless of its parentage, every recommendation was just another bill in the legislature.
In contrast, GovOps is co-chaired by the President Pro Tem and the House Speaker, so staff recommendations would have clearer buy-in from leadership to tackle higher level questions. Their proposals could be incorporated directly into the budget to start, stop, or change programs and agency structures, much as NC GEAR’s recommendations became part of the governor’s recommendations. While PED had to get majority support for minor changes in separate pieces of legislation, an invigorated GovOps could provide recommendations with more impact that are more likely to be adopted.
Before NC GEAR recommended moving attractions from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality) to the new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, PED had recommended management changes, which the agencies pursued separately with varying success between them. A 2014 PED report suggested a more comprehensive and coordinated strategy for veterans programs, but it took NC GEAR in the executive branch to create a Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which PED recognized in 2016. Both of those changes required the governor’s approval to adjust the scope of cabinet agencies. Legislators reasonably worried more about which committee would oversee the revamped agencies.
Professional staff have less leeway to recommend eliminating a program, moving programs from one agency to another, or rethinking an entire policy approach without clear evidence. This limitation is evident in PED’s 2016 review of common findings and recommendations. Evidence in policy disputes is rarely so clear that a result is unequivocal from every perspective. Partisan staff will start with a better understanding of the mission and vision of legislative leadership, so they can provide more sweeping ideas and recommendations than professional staff.
The Program Evaluation Division was an important piece of improving government accountability. Its style of slow and deliberate evaluation of narrowly focused reforms fits more with Results First, with its calculation of benefit/cost ratios and broad consideration of programs across the country. The State Auditor has developed strike force capabilities to investigate after problems arise. Now is the best time to try a different model for the legislature to reconsider government program missions and quickly respond.