Public Assets Institute > Policy Areas > Family Economic Security > Measuring will help the state manage

Measuring will help the state manage

Recently released Census data are both a wake-up call and a gift for the Shumlin administration and the Legislature.

A wake-up call because the statistics show that middle-income Vermonters are earning less and more of them are slipping into poverty—evidence that things are moving in the wrong direction for Vermonters. Our political leaders need to turn this around through the priorities they set—starting with tax and budget policies—that will shape Vermont’s future.

A gift because the Census data provide the beginnings of a performance measurement system that Vermont desperately needs to rebuild.

Challenges for Change, last year’s efficiency improvement program, held out the promise of better, more effective government at less cost. The effort unraveled, however, when people realized the plan was simply a way to cut the budget. Another problem emerged, though, in the course of trying institute Challenges for Change: the budget cuts in recent years had diminished the state’s capacity to evaluate its own performance. In the effort to reduce the size of government, the state lost many of the data collection and analysis staff and, consequently, its capability to look at how well it serves Vermonters.

Until five years ago, we were assessing government effectiveness by measuring—and publicizing—how Vermonters were faring. In the early 1990s, then-Human Services Secretary Con Hogan came up with the novel idea of gauging the performance of the agency not by the size of its caseloads, but by the well-being of Vermont’s citizens. The agency starting tracking indicators like graduation rates and school drop-out rates, college and early education enrollments, teen pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, health care coverage, and much more.

The last Vermont Well-Being report was published in 2006. We need to resurrect that report and develop similar indicators for other agencies and departments of state government. The mission of the Department of Economic Development is “to enhance Vermonters’ quality of life through expanded economic opportunity.” So we all can see how well it’s fulfilling it mission, that department ought to develop quality-of-life measures that it can post on its website. One indicator might be real (inflation-adjusted) median household income, which is readily available from the U.S. Census Bureau.[1] Unfortunately, that would show less than a 4 percent increase over the entire 20 years from 1990 to 2010—hardly enough to enhance the typical Vermonter’s quality of life.

Governor Shumlin has vowed to rebuild Vermont’s middle class. Societies are healthier when economic prosperity is broadly shared, so the governor is focused on the right goal. And he has a big task ahead. Income inequality has been growing here. Vermont’s top 1 percent received about 6 percent of the state’s total income in the mid-1970s. By 2005, its share had tripled, to more than 19 percent, which left less for everybody else. Vermonters deserve to know how the governor plans to reverse this trend, and the governor’s website should provide data people can look at to judge his progress.

No one wants to waste tax dollars, so we shouldn’t be afraid to eliminate public programs or services that are ineffective. By the same token, we need to provide adequate resources—both money and personnel—for those efforts that make Vermont the state we want to live in.

Let’s define that Vermont, design a plan to get there, and start measuring our progress.

[1] Careful readers will note that median household income shown in this link to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey is higher for 2010 than the figure at the American Community Survey link in the first paragraph. The American Community Survey is generally considered more accurate for small states like Vermont because it is based an a larger sample size than the Current Population Survey. However, the American Community Survey wasn’t started until 2005, so it’s necessary to use Current Population Survey data to assess longer term trends.


Posted by Jack Hoffman on November 7, 2011 at 6:13 am

4 Responses to “Measuring will help the state manage”

  1. […] Public Assets Institute shared this with thoughtful post today. PAI advocates for the State of Vermont to revive the practice of measuring state agency performance ” not by the size of its caseloads, but by the well-being of Vermont’s citizens.” Common Good Vermont supports this important work and hopes we can build momentum around this effort. […]

  2. David Usher says:

    Measuring outcomes and performance rather than process and ‘load’ as Con Hogan instituted in AHS years back is absolutely essential. Department of Corrections has done a reasonably good job of it for many years.

    I want to believe measuring outcomes is an essential ingredient in the Act 48 implementation, but I have not read much about that. Is it included?

  3. Eric Zencey says:

    At the Gund Institute, we’ve been working to compile an updated version of the Genuine Progress Indicator for Vermont. Our intention is to deliver this indicator set to the state regularly for their use–and to promote its adoption as a budgeting tool. Good info about the GPI can be found on the Maryland GPI site; Maryland became the first state (last year) to compile the GPI in-house, officially. The point of the GPI is (as the slogan goes) to “Measure What Matters,” not just the commotion of money as measured by GDP. The GPI, in my opinion, needs to be supplemented with additional indicators that assess people’s subjectively experienced well-being. Together, the GPI and appropriate supplements would measure the actual, delivered well-being that the economy gives us; and delievered well-being is, after all, the point of an economy. “Investigate alternative indicators” is the first action item listed in the draft Comprehensive Energy Plan prepared by the Shumlin administration. There is positive movement in Montpelier in this direction–but it needs sustained support and attention.