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Over the past three years, as states have faced record budget deficits, a number of governors and legislatures have looked for ways to increase government efficiency and effectiveness in order to minimize painful budget cuts and avoid tax and fee increases.
Together, we have had the opportunity to work with Louisiana’s Commission on Streamlining Government and Virginia’s Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring as they spent much of 2009 and 2010, respectively, poring over their states’ operations looking for efficiencies and opportunities to refocus state agencies on their critical core missions. These comments reflect our personal experience with these commissions, as well as ex-post analysis based on qualitative interviews with many of the members and staff who participated in Louisiana’s efforts and less formal conversations with participants in Virginia’s commission.
We have found that independent government review commissions that bring together officials from the legislative and executive branches of government as well as outsiders from the private sector and nonprofit groups to look closely at government activities can be effective at identifying opportunities to cut waste, eliminate duplicative programs, realize economies of scale, and generally streamline state government operations.
We have found that independent government review commissions … can be effective at identifying opportunities to cut waste, eliminate duplicative programs, realize economies of scale, and generally streamline state government operations.
We have identified eight specific factors relating to the creation and composition of review commissions that we believe help make them more effective and their reports more likely to result in positive policy changes. We review these points briefly here and hope that this information may encourage other states to critically review the activities of their state.
1. Identify a focus and clear goals. Commissions can either focus on specific, discrete issues or cover a wide range of government services. This should be clearly and specifically articulated in the commission’s charter, as should the deliverables the commission is charged with producing. Failure to do either of these things will delay the commission’s start or open it up to pressure from outside interest groups to either include or exclude specific issues. To maximize the effectiveness of the commission, a clear “Terms of Reference” document will dramatically improve the effectiveness and likely success of the commission. This document should clearly state the purpose of the commission, how often it should report, to whom it should report and the termination point of the commission.
2. Keep the timeline commensurate with the scope. Commissions with a very narrow scope may be able to complete their work in a matter of months, but those with broader missions may need a year or more to complete their work. Proposals to stagger reports over the life of the commission, such as is the case in Virginia, allow commissions to achieve short-term results with the kind of reform that only comes through longer-term deliberation and study. As one staff member from Louisiana’s Commission on Streamlining Government said, “The deal with true reform is you sit back and look at it a while.” Taking the time for deep study, debate, and reflection will yield a better final product. The approach of staggered reporting may be an effective way to grab some of the “low-hanging fruit” early on while contemplating more complex reforms over a longer period.
3. Structure committees in a way that comports with staff expertise. Both Louisiana’s and Virginia’s commissions created committees to study particular issues in depth and report back to the commission. These committees should be structured to take advantage of legislative staff experience and expertise. Additionally, each committee should be provided with clear terms of reference that minimize overlap between committees. The “Terms of Reference” should make it clear that the commission has the authority to create committees and specify who is eligible to serve on these committees. In some cases it would be valuable to allow committees to include citizens who are not commission members but with deep experience in specific areas to assist the work of the committee. These appointments should be approved by the whole commission.
As one staff member from Louisiana’s Commission on Streamlining Government said, “The deal with true reform is you sit back and look at it a while.”
4. Properly resource the commission with the funds necessary to start quickly, investigate thoroughly, and report effectively. Providing a budget to a commission tasked with reducing spending may sound oxymoronic. But virtually all of the members of the Louisiana Commission on Streamlining Government who we interviewed told us that they would have been more effective with an independent investigative and analytic staff. While members praised the diligence and expertise of the legislative staff detailed to the commission, these staff members, by virtue of their positions as civil servants, were constrained in effectively critiquing ideas put forth either by commissioners or members of the public. Moreover, they were unable to aggressively seek information from agencies. Commissioners and staff generally agreed that civil service staff can be valuable assets to commissions, but commissions need their own independent staff as well for fact-finding and analysis. Further, we recommend that a commission be given the funds to hire a facilitator to serve as a chief of staff to the chairperson and an editor to begin the hard work of writing intermediate and final reports from the first day the commission meets. These positions help the commission make the most of its time, especially when operating on a tight timeline. Commissions should plan to report electronically in a searchable and non-proprietary format.
5. Select commission members who are largely outsiders. Streamlining commissions are most effective when a majority of their members do not make government their full-time occupation. After all, much of their strength comes from having a fresh set of eyes look at the operations of state government. However, there would be real value in having members of the legislature as ex-officio members with speaking rights but not decision-making rights. This allows both the legislature and the administration to be closely associated with the work of the commission but not to be seen to be bound by its decisions. The number of commission members seems to be a sticky point, but our view is to be smaller rather than larger, with between eight and sixteen members an ideal range. Too great a membership allows some to be free riders without making an energetic contribution.
6. Select an independent chair. The quality of the chairperson is critical; it needs to be someone who has public credibility, the confidence of the other members, and a depth of experience at bringing diverse views to a consensus point while keeping the commission on task and on time. This person must be able to effectively speak for the commission in the media, in front of the legislature and to the governor and his or her administration.
Streamlining commissions are most effective when a majority of their members do not make government their full-time occupation. After all, much of their strength comes from having a fresh set of eyes look at the operations of state government.
7. Keep administration participation circumscribed but significant. Having buy-in from the governor and the legislature is imperative regardless of whether the commission is a vehicle of the legislature or the governor. However, the commission must also feel that it has the freedom be able to act independently of all branches of the government.
8. Plan for legislative follow through. Nobody wants to serve on a commission for the joy that comes from writing articulate, convincing reports that sit on shelves and do not result in policy changes. Therefore, the commission should endeavor to make all of its recommendations as actionable as possible. As we suggested earlier, having a small number of ex-officio legislative members and people from the administration would be useful in this regard. Additionally, the facilitator and editor can help maintain focus on the actionability of recommendations throughout the research and writing process.
There is no “one size fits all” recipe for establishing or operating state review commissions. Rather, effective commissions must be created and managed in a way that is compatible with a state’s political, economic, and constitutional environments.
Based on what we have learned from other states, we believe that states will be well served by carefully designed commissions that have clear and realistic missions. The quality of decision making by our governments can only be improved by having in front of them well researched information from a grouping of people who are highly qualified, but conduct this work in an environment absent of self-interest.