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August 27, 2013
Viewpoints: State programs need vigorous research to measure accountability

(Aug. 27 - By Barry Krisberg, Special to The Bee)

The recent report by the state auditor that there is virtually no oversight or accountability for more than $7 billion of Proposition 63 Mental Health Services Act funding is alarming. When the voters approve additional taxes to increase important public services, they are entitled to know that they are getting their money's worth. This situation erodes confidence in government and inhibits needed investments in the education system and the social service net.

The Proposition 63 mess is just the tip of the iceberg in state and local government. There are more than $500 million sent to the counties for a variety of programs to prevent and respond to juvenile crime. There is no centralized information on how the money is being spent by the counties and scant data telling us if these programs are effective.

Realignment is even a bigger imbroglio. There is no real oversight by the state, no statewide accounting for funds and no data on the efficacy of the funded programs. The governor and Legislature are passing the responsibility for managing serious criminal offenders to the counties, and all we have are anecdotes about serious crimes committed by realigned offenders or warm and fuzzy media success stories.

There has been a radical downsizing of state juvenile corrections facilities, but no data on the public safety impact of this major change in juvenile justice policies and practices. In the case of realignment, the Legislature created an oversight body as with the Mental Health Services Act, the Board of State and Community Corrections, but this group is a toothless tiger with no real authority and insufficient staff to do its intended job.

Cities and counties are in no better shape when it comes to measuring accountability of these programs. For example, Measure Y in Oakland distributes funds for a property tax for additional police and violence prevention programming, but after several years there is virtually no data as to what results have been produced. The city and county of Los Angeles possess almost no information on the effects of large investments in anti-gang programs. State officials cannot provide much information on local spending of substantial public dollars devoted to anti-bullying programs.

The federal government is also distributing millions to states and localities to reduce violence against women and to improve services to crime victims with virtually no accountability and no objective studies of the results of these efforts.

Without objective and independent evaluations, the assessment of various programs is left to the recipients of the funding or to advocacy groups that bring their special policy agendas to the discussion.

The latest buzz words in social service are "evidence-based programs." But we can't have truly evidence-based interventions without rigorous and independent research. As long as we don't really do any actual studies, anything can claim to rise to the level of science.

I fear that this development is not an oversight. Funders seem to not want to know the truth about a range of social interventions, and there is a political imperative to keep local officials happy by not holding out strict standards in terms of program fidelity and outcomes. Thus, we "put the money on the stump and run."

In the past 50 years in California, major reforms and social programs were always accompanied by funded evaluation so that bad programs could be ended and good programs refined.

Perhaps the era of unaccountability is one of the byproducts of legislative term limits and the churning of elected officials and their staff. California's governance by ballot initiative is also at play. Reform measures voted in by the general population rarely build in careful research and documentation. The public gets very limited information about these public investments via the media, particularly in light of the fact that the media has faced financial hard times and spends less on investigative reporting.

The Golden State now has a small infusion of new money due to Proposition 30. The currently recovering state economy has taken some of the pressure off state and local officials to produce balanced budgets. However, citizens are pressed to meet rising tax burdens and increases in the cost of a range of vital family services. Revelations of billions of tax dollars that are not scrutinized are not good for public confidence or for the future of our communities.

Barry Krisberg is a distinguished senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

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