5 Keys for an Effective Efficiency Commission
by Jennifer Burnett
The Great Recession spawned a wave of temporary commissions or groups with one simple goal: Save the state money while creating an environment for agencies to better provide the services state government should provide.
At least 24 states created these kinds of commissions, either during or in response to the recession, according to a recent survey by The Council of State Governments. The commissions were designed to analyze state government efficiency in delivering services, organizational redundancies and to identify opportunities for budgetary savings.
Efficiency commissions may be commonplace, but successful commissions have five key ingredients.
1. BUY-IN FROM ALL PARTIES INVOLVED
The effort cannot be ideologically driven and it must remain bipartisan and inclusive throughout the effort.
In Colorado, a program created by then-Gov. Bill Ritter—the Government Efficiency and Management Performance Review—made 91 recommendations that were projected at the time to create $205 million in financial benefits over the next five years. Those recommendations included methods to control health care costs, improve public safety, implement “greener” approaches to energy use and improve efficiency through information technology, among other areas.
Mark Cavanaugh, now with the state’s Department of Higher Education, managed the project for the governor and explained that the approach to the commission’s work was unique: It began by soliciting recommendations from a wide variety of state employees, ultimately receiving around 12,000 responses.
“We started this project from a very employee-focused viewpoint,” said Cavanaugh. “Our thinking was that in order to have successful implementation of the changes being recommended, you had to have buy-in and acceptance from those that will actually be doing the implementation: the employees.”
The focus on gaining state employee support and input was clearly important to Ritter from the outset. The employee survey contained a message from the governor: “There is one thing that we know for sure—some of the best ideas come from the people who work in the programs and provide the services every day. We want to get your ideas about how to improve, how to provide better services and how to work more efficiently.”
2. Committed Leadership & Champions
The project needs committed leadership and champions—preferably strong legislative and executive support, along with public support that will sustain the effort even through political change.
Louisiana’s commission—the Streamlining Government Commission—exemplifies this practice.
The commission included members from the legislative and executive branches of state government, as well as from the private sector. Tim Prather, the commission’s coordinator, said the panel was the perfect size—just big enough to have a representative set of interests at the table, but not a “huge, unwieldy group that can’t get things done.”
A set of five advisory groups evaluated more specific policy areas, each of which contained at least two commission members.
While the governor strongly backed the commission, the legislature also supported it.
“Sen. Jack Donahue, our chair, really worked hard on this endeavor and continues to champion it in the legislature,” said Prather.
The implementing legislation—Act No. 491—provided the scope and power of the commission that allowed it to function effectively.
“Every aspect of government was fair game for evaluation, except for higher education, which had its own commission,” said Prather. “Everybody was a player in this effort, from the auditor’s office to the Department of Health and Hospitals.”
3. Succinct, Easy-to-Understand Recommendations
In every state commission, a final report or series of reports provide the recommendations of the group and generally offer guidelines for implementation.
Cavanaugh said Colorado’s final report was intended to be like a “recipe book”—precise and easily duplicated.
“We wanted to provide enough detail so that managers and employees could implement improvements like the ones recommended and then copy this process with other improvement opportunities in the future,” said Cavanaugh.
The effort must remain fully transparent throughout the entire process, from development through implementation and evaluation. Linking goals to clearly defined outcome and performance measures—and publicly reporting on them—allows those following the process to track progress.
Transparency in government in general has become more important to the public and policymakers, but when it comes to making major structural changes, transparency becomes paramount to an effort’s success and longevity.
The Utah Advisory Commission to Optimize State Government took transparency and reporting to the public very seriously, not just in public access to the group’s goals and final report, but also in the follow-up process as well.
The commission set up a user-friendly website called Optimization Tracking that enables the public to view progress (implemented, deferred, in review, etc.) on key recommendations of the commission. Users can dig into the details of a recommendation, the key outcomes for that recommendation and get the status or target completion date for that area.
5. Clear, Identified Goals
Goals should be clear and identified. They should include the commission’s scope of operation—whether it will seek to find savings in existing programs or reform the structure of government itself—and its time frame for execution—long-term goals versus short-term goals, realistic time frame for study and implementation, etc.
In Utah, Gov. Gary R. Herbert made government transformation a goal from the beginning of his term, saying in his inaugural address, “As governor, I will lead the charge for government efficiencies in all that we are tasked to do. I pledge to lead a government that is open, honest, accessible and accountable.”
He then created the Utah Advisory Commission to Optimize State Government to conduct a broad-based, independent review of governmental processes and the state’s spending, with the end goal of making recommendations to “improve efficiency, enhance effectiveness and optimize performance in the State of Utah.”
The goals of Utah’s commission were made clear from the beginning and were governed by a succinct set of principles: The commission should be data-driven, have a long-term focus, be targeted on areas where a reassessment can “provide the greatest return to taxpayers,” receive recommendations from an independent and experienced perspective, recognize the limited nature of the commission to only recommendations—not policy implementation—and remain open to input throughout the process.
The time frame for the conclusion of the commission’s work also was clearly established and met.