Evidence-based budgeting getting national traction

150 150 Chris Nelson

Anyone who has been paying attention to California Forward of late knows that we are big supporters of anything evidence-based when it comes to funding government programs.

What seems like a common sense idea to us and many other Californians is now getting some national traction right from the top.

A White House memorandum pushing for a shift to evidence-based budgeting that was discussed in a recent New York Times blog begins with the following:

“Since taking office, the President has emphasized the need to use evidence and rigorous evaluation in budget, management, and policy decisions to make government work effectively. This need has only grown in the current fiscal environment.Where evidence is strong, we should act on it.  Where evidence is suggestive, we should consider it.  Where evidence is weak, we should build the knowledge to support better decisions in the future.”

It’s understandably frustrating for Californians who are struggling to balance their own budgets when they see their state government fail time and time again to do the same.

When divvying up your disposable income, you research what will be worth your money. If you invest in something initially but don’t like it later because it doesn’t produce the result you expected, you return it, exchange it or sell it.

It seems only natural to apply this to a system that for too long has spent beyond its means and essentially gambled (and lost) when attempting to close the gap.

It begs the question: Why wasn’t this mode of thinking adopted years ago? The simplest answer lies in the “not in my backyard” mentality that surfaces when austerity strikes.

The Times piece correctly asserts “that data is no match for emotion in an election year, and many lobbyists, campaign donors, party leaders, constituents and ideologues will ignore evidence that contradicts their interests or beliefs.”

However, a form of evidence-based budgeting is finding its way to the ballot in California, giving the people a chance to circumvent the political hurdles and thereby forcing Sacramento to simply pay for what it spends.

And with programs such as the Partnership for Community Excellence, California Forward is sponsoring evidence-based efforts aimed at preventing criminal offenders from becoming repeat offenders.

Support from President Obama and attention in publications such as the New York Times are putting “evidence-based” in the national lexicon. In the “more with less” mindset, it only makes sense to correct course in hopes of avoiding a multi-billion dollar budget gap year after year.

As the Times piece notes, much of the data for government programs is already available and doesn’t require commissioning expensive studies to figure out ways to spend less.

The evidence for why this approach makes sense is staring us in the face. The only roadblock is partisan and special interest inertia. At least in California, we’ll see in November if the will of the people proves to be mightier.


Chris Nelson

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