October 3, 2016

October 3, 2016 | Commentary on Budget and Spending

Bring Back PART: The Case for Evidence-Based Fiscal Discipline

Though tax revenues are at all-time highs, Washington continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars more than it collects every year. As a result, the federal government now carries an enormous amount of debt: more than $19.5 trillion. It now owes more than our nation produces (i.e., debt far exceeds Gross National Product).  

Clearly, Washington needs to reel in its out-of-control spending. To do that, policymakers should fund only those programs that actually work and defund programs that don’t.

Enter evidence-based policymaking .

When practiced correctly, evidence-based policymaking allows officials to base funding decisions on scientifically rigorous program evaluations. Programs that fail to produce results can have their budgets cut or be entirely eliminated. Programs that generate desired results can be continued with confidence. The result is a more efficient, effective government and a far better “return on investment” for taxpayers.

The next president can help make this happen by establishing a modified and improved Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART)—an initiative originally implemented during the George W. Bush Administration.

PART was an attempt to assess every federal program’s purpose, management, and results to determine its overall effectiveness. In trying to link federal budgetary decisions to performance, PART marked an important shift in thinking about government accountability and performance.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama terminated the original PART. And the national debt has, under his watch, more than doubled.

It’s not that the Obama administration abandoned efforts to assess the effectiveness of federal programs. Indeed, it actually increased the number of program evaluations. But the administration delinked accountability from budgetary decisions. And continuing to fund programs, regardless of evaluation results, does not serve the interests of federal taxpayers.

Perversely, the administration has sometimes tried to expand programs that have been shown to be ineffective. One such example is the Obama administration’s efforts to shove more kids into the boondoggle that is Head Start. Real leadership requires defunding failed social programs.  

Instituting an improved PART—let’s call it PART 2.0—will help the next President pressure Congress to eliminate wasteful and ineffective programs, no matter how politically popular they may be, and to make remaining federal programs operate as efficiently as possible.

One of the beauties of PART was that it required the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to use an index in assessing program performance. Under a PART 2.0, all stakeholders in the budget process should be encouraged to concentrate on credible evidence of effectiveness. If Congress, disagreed with a particular assessment, it should be able to respond with evidence that is more credible than the evidence presented by the OMB.

Imagine the impact on congressional appropriations if an evidence-based PART 2.0 forced policymakers to examine programs objectively, rather than rely on political rhetoric and anecdotal evidence.

As just one example, it would have put the kibosh on $59.4 million in employment-focused prisoner reentry grants recently awarded by the Department of Labor. Scientifically rigorous evaluations have shown repeatedly that employment-focused reentry have little success, The Labor Department’s own large-scale experimental evaluation of the Reintegration of Ex-Offenders grants found them to be ineffective at reducing recidivism. Yet the Obama administration pushed to keep the grants flowing, calling them an “investment” that will “reduce recidivism.”

Unless rigorous evaluation results are strongly linked to budget decisions, any proclamations about the benefits of evidence-based policymaking are meaningless. The next president can help restore fiscal discipline in the federal government, but it will require leadership, persistence and the will to cut spending. It will also require a rational, transparent approach to budgeting so that people can understand why cutting some popular and well-meaning programs is, in fact, the right thing to do. Instituting PART 2.0 would be a tremendous help in the effort to restore spending discipline and program effectiveness to government.

About the Author

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis

Related Issues: Budget and Spending

First appeared in The Hill.