Reviewing What Works: Evaluating Programs and Tax Expenditures: Center for American Progress Has Developed a Performance Review Process That Helps the Government to Undertake a Systematic Review of Spending Programs and Tax Expenditures

By Kohli, Jitinder; Hanlon, Seth | The Public Manager, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Reviewing What Works: Evaluating Programs and Tax Expenditures: Center for American Progress Has Developed a Performance Review Process That Helps the Government to Undertake a Systematic Review of Spending Programs and Tax Expenditures


Kohli, Jitinder, Hanlon, Seth, The Public Manager


Candidate Barack Obama promised that if elected president he would "go through our federal budget--page by page, line by line--eliminating those programs we don't need, and insisting that those we do need operate in a sensible cost-effective way."

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Since the 2009 inauguration, there has been some progress in this important direction. The Obama Administration proposed $20 billion in program terminations, reductions, or consolidations in its first two budgets, and Congress has enacted about 60 percent of those savings. This year's budget includes an additional $33 billion of savings.

Of course, we need to do more. The United States is on an unsustainable fiscal course in the long-term that will require a redoubling of budget discipline. But we can't sacrifice investments that are creating jobs and helping the economy recover and grow. Bottom line: It's never been more important to spend every public dollar wisely.

Yet there is no systematic and effective review process that looks at all programs across federal agencies to establish what's working. Which of the 110 programs in the 14 agencies that promote science, technology, or engineering education are the most effective, and which ones should be reformed or eliminated? Of the more than 100 programs across 13 agencies on youth mentoring, which ones demonstrate the most cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars?

While legislation such as the Government Performance and Results Act has ensured there is considerably more information available on programs, little of this information is of value in ascertaining the relative effectiveness of programs. The consequence of this information deficit is that when the budgets axe falls, politically popular programs often survive even if they are relatively ineffective--and those that are effective but lack powerful sponsors become vulnerable.

And it's not just traditional spending programs that need better performance reviews. There is $1 trillion in annual federal spending that goes almost entirely unreviewed for effectiveness from year to year. Money that the federal government spends through the tax code through special breaks, credits, and loopholes. The largest ones are familiar, such as the deduction for home mortgage interest. But many are relatively unknown, buried in the tax code, and directed at certain industries.

But most tax expenditures are permanent fixtures of the tax code that do not need to be renewed so they are exempt from the congressional appropriations process and the scrutiny that comes with annual budgeting. As a result, many tax expenditures have grown out of all proportion to their original purpose. Out of view and insulated from the budget process, ineffective tax expenditures tend to continue while the budget axe falls on discretionary spending programs, effective and ineffective alike.

To address these problems, the Center for American Progress has developed a performance review process it calls "Reviewing What Works" that would enable the government to undertake a systematic review of spending programs and tax expenditures.

The Reviewing What Works Approach

Working with some 200 experts from government and beyond, the Center for American Progress developed a set of tools that allow for a systematic analysis of which government funded programs are most effective and which ones merit reform. This process can be extended to cover tax expenditures as well.

The Reviewing What Works toolkit includes a set of evaluation forms and a formal process for using them. The approach examines families of programs across a policy area, such as homelessness or youth mentoring, rather than focusing on individual programs.

This sort of overview enables comparisons of effectiveness of programs. It also addresses a key weakness in Washington: the inability of the administration or Congress to draw conclusions about the relative effectiveness of different programs, whether direct spending programs or tax expenditures.

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Reviewing What Works: Evaluating Programs and Tax Expenditures: Center for American Progress Has Developed a Performance Review Process That Helps the Government to Undertake a Systematic Review of Spending Programs and Tax Expenditures
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