Transparency has been a big-name item since President Barack Obama campaigned so heavily on this topic. We have heard the most about transparency being applied to financial transactions of the government, but there is another important aspect of transparency, which is to “demonstrate a return on investment.” Now what do we mean by return on investment (ROI)? Any first year business student understands the importance of reviewing the ROI of a program, but as taxpayers we aren’t so quick to think about a ROI with reference to our tax dollars. But as the federal and state governments have grown in employees, expenditures, and debt, looking at ROI is a much-needed approach.
Accountability is a word that we hear a lot about at the federal level of government, but somehow we are still lacking real change concerning it. When we heard that the Department of Defense was spending $750 on toilet seats and $500 on a hammer, the public was in an uproar over the wasting of our tax dollars. We are quick to question ridiculous spending at the federal level, but the question we need to be asking, and for some reason seem afraid to, is whether or not the programs our tax dollars are paying for are effective. We like to believe that the programs the government offers are helping people, but the truth of the matter is we rarely get a report on the number of people that are being helped and what difference these programs make in peoples’ lives.
Governor Terry Branstad has decided that the ROI for education has dropped to an unacceptable level. This is why he and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds are hosting the Iowa Education Summit on July 25-26, 2011, in Des Moines. The administration feels that business as usual isn’t the right course for our Department of Education and it is time to change the way we do business. The hope is that we will see better test scores, lower dropout rates, higher achievement of our students, and a more prepared workforce. The hope is also to achieve better control on the spending that is happening at the state government level and local level with increasing property tax rates from the local school districts. Thus it will be very interesting to see how this all develops.
But the truth of the matter is we need to take this approach for all departments of government. Government does serve a vital purpose, but it is important, with only so much money to go around for funding the various projects and programs, that we understand what the priorities are and know what has the higher ROI for the taxpayers. I know that this methodology has been a “sacred cow” in government management, but as we see debt skyrocket out of control at the federal level and the state of Iowa trying to repay the debt from Governor Culver’s I-JOBS program, it is time to change our way of thinking.
I know it seems strange to start using ROI in government spending, but this approach is really the best approach to maximize our tax dollars and make sure that we are funding the programs that make a difference in the lives of Iowans. So I would urge every reader to take the time when you are discussing the budget with your elected officials to ask about the ROI of the different programs and urge them to understand how different programs are effective. Then we will start to see more transparency in our government and better use of our tax dollars.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better informed citizenry.
Jennifer Crull is the IT Specialist at the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.