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Audit arts

Politics and new school performance evaluation

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Aside from their weekly Unda' the Rotunda fix, there is nothing that draws a crowd at the Legislature like a good audit.

The presentation of a new report this week on consolidating school district services drew an eager mob: Idaho schools chief Tom Luna, Controller Donna Jones, half a dozen legislators, representatives from the Governor's Office, the State Board of Education and the teachers' union and four reporters.

The report recommends that the state help smaller districts share costs for materials and supplies, professional development and transportation. But it goes a step further and recommends that the State Department of Education offer financial incentives for consolidating those services—you save a million, you get to keep it for a few more years and spend it somewhere else.

"I don't have a problem with consolidation of services," said Senate Education Committee Chairman, who left the hearing in a bit of a huff, muttering about nobody asking his opinion. "I do have an issue with financial incentives for consolidation of services."

Goedde thinks the savings ought to go to the bottom line, not back to the schools.

Luna rose at the meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, the panel that directs the Office of Performance Evaluations, and suggested that the State Department of Education could do a better job saving administrative costs in the schools if the Legislature asked him to. Just ask me to cut 10 percent from district administrative costs, Luna challenged JLOC.

Next up: a follow-up report showing that the State Board of Education had failed to address four recommendations and only partially implemented three other recommendations from a two-year-old review of attendance accounting at virtual schools. Rep. Maxine Bell said she was very disappointed. She asked State Board of Education Legislative Affairs Officer Mark Browning to explain.

He apologized.

This is the power of the audit. It is the belt that lawmakers can use to whip agencies into shape, the crutch they can use to justify policy decisions, the oversight that agencies sometimes crave and sometimes fear.

Even the existence of any particular performance evaluation is wrapped in a shroud of political information management.

Calls last year for an audit of the Idaho Transportation Department were met with charges of stalling—the department had already undergone several reviews, and Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter was already pushing to increase the agency's budget.

But lawmakers on both sides of the ITD funding rut supported the half-million-dollar performance audit, presented last month.

"My initial reaction was ... they came up with a potential cost savings of only 1 percent of the total ITD budget," said chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee Sen. John McGee of the most anticipated performance evaluation of the session. "The previous 30 audits that had been done on ITD in the last three years have ensured that the department is running efficiently," McGee added, tongue in cheek.

McGee and Otter, who both desire more funding for the department, supported the idea of the audit last year and praised the findings this year, arguing it made their case for them.

But even in the wake of the ITD audit findings, which clearly state that the department does not have enough money to mange the state highway system, House Transportation and Defense Committee Chairwoman JoAn Wood is holding onto the idea that ITD can still cut costs in certain areas.

The audit did identify $30.6 million in one-time savings over five years and $6.6 million in ongoing savings and made some major recommendations for reprioritizing highway projects and paying for future projects. But legislative auditors found that even the $137 million increase to ITD the governor called for last year was not enough.

The main point, McGee said, proven more than once by legislative auditors, is that ITD is $240 million short.

"The decision as to what to audit is inherently political," said Sen. Elliot Werk, co-chairman of the JLOC.

Most years, the Legislature comes up with a few ideas for agency evaluations. But it is JLOC—a fully bipartisan and bicameral committee with rotating Democratic and Republican chairs—that has the power to depoliticize the audit process.

Werk said that it makes no difference if the call for an audit is overtly political; if the information is useful, then the Office of Performance Evaluations has done its job.

OPE Director Rakesh Mohan has embraced the political nature of his job. Whereas auditors in generations past would hole up in the basements of public buildings analyzing spreadsheets in a political vacuum, Mohan is a frequent visitor at legislative committees and often speaks with the Governor's Office and agency heads.

He also reads the paper.

"If I don't talk to these people, what would happen is I would be out of touch with reality," Mohan said, sitting at the table in his cluttered office in the generic basement of a state building.

For the ITD audit, Mohan told legislative leaders up front that they may or may not get what they want.

"I told leadership, 'I know you are looking for some savings. We'll do our best to find savings, but there are no promises,'" Mohan said.

Mohan is something of a guru in this new government performance evaluation methodology. He is co-editor of "Promoting the Use of Government Evaluations in Policymaking," the Winter 2006 edition of the journal New Directions for Evaluation. And he uses his experiences in Idaho to illustrate ways of being both a highly independent evaluator and a highly responsive one.

In the chapter "Managing the Politics of Evaluation to Achieve Impact," Mohan and co-author Kathleen Sullivan cite several examples from Idaho.

One of these examples, a review of the public failure in 2004 of the Idaho Student Information Management System, a public/private venture to design a statewide computer database for school districts, illustrates how Mohan situates his evaluations in the political sphere.

"In some people's minds, the question was whether this evaluation was going to be a finger-pointing exercise. We recognized the nature of our assignment early on and made it clear that the purpose of the evaluation was to identify lessons that could be applied to the state's future information technology efforts, not to assign blame for failures," Mohan writes.

In his essay, Mohan provides a chart showing four quadrants. From bottom left to top right, the chart illustrates varying degrees of independence and responsiveness.

Mohan tries to be both independent and responsive. Lobbyists are highly responsive, but not independent, he said.

Mohan is noncommittal as to where journalists belong on the chart.

His chart got us thinking though: Are journalists independent enough? Are we responsive, and if so to whom?

Are we just beltless, poor-man's auditors with no budget for consultants to whom no one is obliged to listen?

One thing is for sure: if someone gave Unda' the Rotunda half a million dollars, we'd find plenty of great new ideas for ITD, too.

Even if we had to hole up in a basement and even if the cash came from The Man.