News Local/State

Illinois Issues: Will Illinois Ever Embrace ‘Budgeting For Results’?

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Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois

When lawmakers made performance-based budgeting the law in Illinois, they promised it would transform the way the state spends money. But after years of failing to invest in the program, backers say Illinois is finally getting serious about Budgeting for Results.

Nine years ago, when Budgeting for Results was becoming the law of the land, then-state Sen. Dan Kotowski promised Illinois would “fund programs based on performance and impact, not politics and special interests.”

A year later, Gov. Pat Quinn touted Budgeting for Results using the past tense: “The Budgeting for Results process focused on our core priorities, and increased openness in the budget process.”

But that might have been a bit optimistic. While it's true that he had appointed members to a Budgeting for Results Commission, and it's true that they had been meeting, and it's true some of the governor’s own budget staff had been trying to wrap their minds around the project — it was was still a long way from transforming the state budget.

It still is.

“Building a performance-based budget system for a state the size of Illinois, which operates on a line-item budget, has been a challenge,” said Curt Clemons-Mosby, director of the Budgeting for Results Unit in the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. He spoke at two public hearings last month.

In the early years, the problem was figuring out what to measure. Seven broad categories were identified: education, economic development, public safety, human services, healthcare, environment and culture, and government services.

Then, every one of the thousands of lines in the budget — every dollar — was linked to a program.

After all that, the next challenge — and perhaps the biggest — is in shifting the mindset of how to measure performance. It’s easy to count what officials call “output indicators” — like the number of people who participate in a program and how long they had to wait. But while that might be useful for the people who run the program, it doesn’t say much about whether it’s actually helping people in the real world.

“This is a difficult process because we have to balance the need for quality outcome measures with the cost and burden on agencies and our clients,” he said. Nevertheless, Budgeting for Results took a big step forward in 2017, when it chose a cost-benefit analysis tool developed by the Pew-McArthur Results First Initiative. Then, starting last year, the effort got it’s own line of funding in the state budget — for staff, equipment, and outside help.

Using the Results First framework, analysts are working their way acorss government. First up were the departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice, where programs were rated "effective,” “moderately effective,” or “marginal” — barely a passing grade.

Alexis Sturm, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget director, says those evaluations are already affecting policy decisions. For example, after adult-education programs in the prisons were found to be effective, the Department of Corrections asked for more money for such programs.

“And to the extent that we were able to do that, we were able to direct additional funding for that program in the fiscal year 20 recommended budgets,” he said.

In the marginal group, however, was electronic monitoring. This is where tracking devices are secured to parole violators and other high-risk parolees.

Among the problems identified is that the department refused to set goals or performance targets for electronic monitoring. Corrections and another agency — the Prisoner Review Board — can't seem to agree which state entity is responsible for that.

While the low rating for electronic monitoring did not prompt lawmakers to zero out funding, it is giving at least some of them pause.

“I mean, there was a time, when we thought — and I'll just say it this way — that we thought a key to reducing the prison population was electronic monitoring,” said state Rep. Will Davis, a Democrat from Homewood. “And now we've seen reports to suggest that it may not be as effective as we thought it was.”

Davis has been on the Budgeting for Results Commission from the beginning. He says it “seems” like the appropriate way to budget, but there's a caveat — namely a concern over whether data should trump personal knowledge.

"As a member, we don't always see it that way, particularly when you are parochial in the sense that you represent a district, you understand that district, you know the district's needs, and sometimes possibly these performance-type ways of allocating resources don't necessarily always fit what I think is happening in my communities, or what I think — or how I feel — the dollars should be spent,” Davis said.

Still, Davis says Budgeting for Results needs to be ramped up more quickly than it's been.

One of his budget-minded, Demcoratic colleagues — state Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago — says it's going to take a change in the culture of the General Assembly.

“We're sort of set in our ways,” she said. “We're going through our line items and we're doing it that way. We're not doing it, at this moment in time, based on how effective the programs are, and how are we trying to really address a desired outcome. That's not — that culture shift hasn't happened yet.”

With Corrections and Juvenile Justice in the books, Budgeting for Results is moving on to state-funded substance abuse programs. Later they’ll tackle things with even bigger price tags, like public schools and state universities.

The goal is that someday, sooner than later, every dollar Illinois spends will be justified based on performance.