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Without a vote, the legislative leadership in North Carolina closed the state’s program evaluation division. Experts say the growing power of legislative leaders presents an accelerating danger for transparent, publicly available evaluation.
If you visit the North Carolina Program Evaluation Division website you’ll find a terse message saying that the unit has been disbanded and its work plan suspended.
This was a significant disappointment for us, professionally. We’ve long relied on the work of the division, which had done in-depth studies about government programs since it was created by a 2007 statute. With bipartisan support, it covered issues suggested by legislators and approved by the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee.
Ironically, the North Carolina evaluation division and John Turcotte, its director until his retirement in September 2020, were the subjects of a laudatory article in the January issue of State Legislatures, the magazine of the National Conference of State Legislatures. That came out just a month before the division was obliterated.
Division studies in 2020 included ways to ease access to occupational licenses for military veterans and spouses, options for reorganizing adult correction and juvenile justice, and the improvements needed in the oversight of Housing Finance Agency Funds and Expenditures. According to a December 2020 report, four of its fiscal year 2020 reports resulted in legislative change. Six others resulted in bills that were endorsed by the oversight committee but did not pass.
The division’s closure received very little press attention in the state or elsewhere. The decision was made suddenly and quietly in mid-February, and did not come from a legislative vote, which would have drawn attention. Instead, the action was taken by legislative leadership, which chose not to appoint a new evaluation oversight committee, necessary to conduct or discuss any new business. The 14-person division staff was given only two weeks’ notice, though some of the employees were subsequently rehired in other positions.
As reported by the Associated Press, legislative leaders planned to explore new methods of providing oversight that were timelier and more efficient. A spokesperson for North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore said it would be preferable for the state to replace the division with joint House-Senate panels with “the authority to compel timely and comprehensive answers from public agencies.”
Until the end of 2020, when he retired from office, former Republican Representative Craig Horn was co-chair of the oversight committee. He says he was frustrated by the decision, which dramatically reduces oversight independence. “In order to be effective and credible, you have to have an arm’s length examination. It’s in the state’s best interest to have dispassionate evaluation.”
Over time, the evaluation division “saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars,” Horn says. “It exposed inefficiencies, redundancies and omissions. When you find out stuff that doesn’t need to be done, that eliminates cost. If you can improve efficiency, it reduces costs. That was accomplished by program evaluation. Why would they eliminate program evaluation?”
In a state with split government – a Republican legislature and Democratic gubernatorial administration – the idea of abandoning comprehensive nonpartisan evaluation and instead compelling answers from panel witnesses raises significant alarms from Democratic legislators. They are concerned that investigative probes will now be controlled by Republican leadership.
“It is troubling to legislators that a decision to remove more than a dozen highly professional nonpartisan staff members was done by general assembly leadership without any consultation or input from the opposing party,” says Democratic State Senator Jay Chaudhuri.
We tried to better understand why the decision to disband the division was made. But efforts to interview Speaker of the House Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger have not succeeded. Some North Carolina observers speculate that the evaluation division’s often comprehensive studies did not have enough impact on policy change. Legislative leaders also were said to favor a speedier approach that would eliminate a bureaucratic layer from the oversight process and shift oversight responsibilities to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, which is co-chaired by Moore and Berger.
When Horn expressed his disappointment about the decision in conversations with legislative leadership, he was told that they wanted oversight to be “more nimble.” But in the six years that he co-chaired the committee, Horn says no one in a leadership position ever communicated to him that they wanted less of a deep dive or quicker studies. “If that was what they wanted, we could have done that with the existing organization,” he says.
‘Troubling long-term trend’
North Carolina is not alone in making this move. Over the years, we’ve seen other solid independent nonpartisan organizations that have been wiped out of existence. Sometimes their focus has been attached to measuring performance; other times, they engaged in thoughtful planning efforts or, as in North Carolina, provided evaluative oversight to ensure accountability and improve performance.
“I think this reflects a troubling long-term trend,” says Gary VanLandingham, a Florida State University professor who has 35 years of experience in the field of program evaluation and analysis and was director of Results First, the national evidence-based policy initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts, from 2011 to 2016.
A list of organizations that were shuttered in the past, includes the New York Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review, the Commission on Government Accountability in Florida, the Oregon Progress Board and the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center.
VanLandingham served as director at Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) from 2003 to 2010. While OPPAGA wasn’t closed, the organization changed dramatically after the Great Recession when the legislature stripped the office of its statutory independence, put it under the authority of the house speaker and senate president, and substantially cut its budget.
OPPAGA continues to do a professional job, but it releases fewer than half the number of public reports that it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Much of its work is released as “confidential memoranda to the presiding officers, with leaders deciding how that information will be distributed,” explains VanLandingham.
“I think it’s very important for states and legislatures to get an independent analysis of what’s working and what’s not and that just shouldn’t come through a political lens,” he says.
Rakesh Mohan, director of the Office of Program Evaluation in Idaho, agrees. “For making decisions, legislatures need good information that they can rely on that is nonpartisan. The best way to get that information is from an independent body.”
Two years ago, Mohan had his own tense moment when a proposal emerged to reduce the independence of his office by putting it under the authority of a larger legislative agency and shifting some of his positions to the budget office. In the end, these plans evaporated, and he is comfortable now that legislators value the work his office produces and view it as highly credible.
Still, Mohan recognizes that the existence of an office like his can be fragile. “I think that the threat to independence is always there,” he says. “We’re working in a political environment, and it’s a matter of time that sooner or later someone from an independent evaluation office is going to step on the wrong toes.”
Will North Carolina be the last domino to fall? Our guess is that won’t be the case. The growing power of legislative leadership presents an accelerating danger for transparent, publicly available and independent evaluation. The increasingly hostile partisan divide hasn’t helped either. In the end, if we’re right, and this trend continues, taxpayers will be the big losers.
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