'A Troubling Trend': Independent State Program Evaluation Under Attack

North Carolina's state Capitol building, in Raleigh.

North Carolina's state Capitol building, in Raleigh. iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

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. 

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Madison Water Utility replaces 8,000 lead service lines
Madison, WI, USA
Financing Renewable Energy Project with Crowdfunding in Holyoke, MA
Holyoke, MA, USA
Investment Crowdfunding Used To Finance Green Infrastructure Pilot Project in VA
Fairfax, VA, USA

NEXT STORY: The States that Make it Most Difficult to Vote

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.