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A Place Where No One Keeps Score

Do programs achieve what their framers intend? What we don't know is frustrating. And what we do know . . . .

November 22, 1998|ROBERT M. HERTZBERG and GEORGE RUNNER | Assemblyman Robert M. Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) represents the 40th Assembly District. Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster) represents the 36th Assembly District

You board a flight to Chicago. Three hours later, the pilot announces that the plane has used enough fuel so he is preparing to land.

"Are we there yet? Did we make it to Chicago?" you ask. "Who knows?" the pilot replies. "We don't keep track."

As we see it, far too many government programs run like this aircraft: destination unknown, time of arrival uncertain. We know what it takes in dollars, people and resources to get a government program off the ground, but next to nothing about its results.

Do government programs achieve what we intend, or land us in the Louisiana bayous? A recent report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) reveals how little we know. The LAO took a first-ever look at the results of key county-run programs, including jails, child protection and libraries. What the LAO found--and could not find--about county performance was astounding.

Counties are responsible for jailing most of the state's felons and then supervising them after they are released. You would think someone would keep track of how well counties do this crucial job. You would think someone would count how often felons on probation break the law again and how often they stay out of trouble. You would be wrong.

In ts report, "California Counties: A Look at Program Performance," the LAO found very little information on the results of county jail or probation programs or virtually any other county program, for that matter.

Want to know how often kids picked up for car theft commit new crimes? Sorry, we don't know. Want to know how often social workers fail to recognize serious cases of child abuse? We don't know that either. Want to know how often county drug and alcohol workers get their clients to stay sober? Forget it.

This information gap is frustrating. How can we know whether Californians are getting the services they need? How can county supervisors, residents or even the state Legislature know if a program needs more money, less money, or just better management?

If what we don't know is frustrating, some of what we do know is downright frightening. Among the LAO's findings: Throughout the state, a shortage of jail space forces counties to routinely release people before their sentences are served. Los Angeles County alone let 45,835 people out of jail early last year.

In some counties, jail space is in such demand that offenders serve only a fraction of their sentences. What good are tougher sentencing laws if counties have to let the criminals out the back door early?

And if you think inmates being released early from jail are closely supervised, think again. The LAO report, which notes how many cases each probation officer supervises, clearly shows that officers are spread too thin. If a teacher has trouble with 30 schoolchildren, how closely can a probation officer in Riverside supervise a "class" of 73 offenders? Of course, we don't know how this high caseload affects crime. No one monitors the impact.

Running county programs without looking at results simply does not make much sense. And, to be honest, few state government programs are run any better. To remain competitive in the next century, California will need dramatic fiscal and governance reform. Those reforms must make government more efficient and more accountable.

At every level of government, we need to start looking at performance. That means keeping track of not just the amount of money we put into government but the level of services we get out of government. To do this, we need to identify goals for government programs and measure how close we get to the mark. This need not require a massive, mind-numbing data collection effort. But it will take some clear thinking about which results are most important and then honesty in measuring performance.

Perhaps the first step is to focus on programs we care most about, such as jails and programs to protect children or the elderly from abuse. With input from residents, businesses and local government employees and officials, we could set clear public benchmarks and then measure how often we reach them. With some information about results, we could begin to see how different policies and funding levels affected services. That would put the Legislature, governor and local officials in a much better position to guide this aircraft of government and make sure its flights arrive safely at their intended destinations.

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