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Benchmarks to a better Oregon.

Unwilling to file away its ambitious plan for the state's future, Oregon has transformed it into specific goals for its agencies to meet and, even in its straitened fiscal condition, has added a little financial sweetener.

By 2010, the number of teen pregnancies per 1,000 should be reduced from 19.5 to 8.

By 2010, the percentage of Oregon high school students enrolled in technical education programs should increase from 9 perccent to 55 percent.

By 2000, every Oregonian should be able to afford basic health care.

When the people in Oregon talk about dealing with teen pregnancy, inadequate job skills and access to health care, they don't talk in generalities. These quantified goals and 155 others (30 critical ones), which became known as the Oregon Benchmarks, were hammered out over four years of meetings, public hearings, committees, coalitions of business, labor, education and government groups, negotiaion, compromise and finally agreement. It wasn't a one-woman or one-man show. Almost anyone who wanted a part could join the cast of thousands, and if everything goes as hoped, there won't be a final act. The legislature has created a nine-member commission and assigned it the task of conducting a continuing review of the goals and reporting its recommendations each biennium.

Two months ago the Oregon Progress Board sent more than 7,500 letters to citizens, groups, businesses, government agencies and community leader soliciing recommendations for changes to the benchmarks. As these recommendations flow in, they will be reviewed and incorporated in the Progress Board's report to the legislature in 1993.

"No one should have the impression that the path was easy or that we had the results all planned in advance," explains Representative Beverly Stein of Portland.

By 1987 Oregon was coming out of a prolonged recession, and Governor Neil Goldschmidt commissioned an evaluation of what was needed to ensure long-term growh and a strong economic based while preserving the quality of life. for which Oregon is renowned. "Oregon Shines," the report released in 1989, mapped a plan for educating a superior workforce, maintaining an attractive quality of life and adopting an "international frame of mind." The latter would allow the state to take economic and cultural advantage of its Pacific Rim location.

But perhaps the most important recommendation was to create a body, appointed and chaired by the governor, "to see that these initiatives are implemented." The Oregon Progress Board decided that the best way to fulfill its responsibility was to produce a set of "benchmarks" to translate the strategic plan into an action plan.

The Progress Board presented its 158 benchmarks to the Legislative Assembly in January 1991. They were divided into three categories--people, quality of life and the economy. Seventeen were designated short-term "lead" benchmarks that address calling for immediate action. Thirteen were identified as "key" benchmarks. These long-term fundamental measures of well-being include air quality, literacy, crime and personal income.

By the time the benchmarks reached the legislature, a new governor had been elected, and the voters had approved a ballot measure to reduce taxes that severely limited state spending. Governor Barbara Roberts embraced the idea of the benchmarks, but there was little prospect of new money to implement them. Legislators preoccupied with the budget pushed the benchmarks into the background. The Legislative Assembly endorsed them as state policy goals, and several pieces of legislation referred to one or more of the benchmarks as arguments in support of the legislation but little more was done. But Governor Roberts did not abandon the benchmarks. She saw them as a way to focus the state's limited revenues on popular golas and to combat the widespread public mistrust of government. She asked state agencies to develop concrete mission statements and devote at least a portion of their resources to meeting specific benchmarks. Agency heads ranked and defended their programs before panels of their peers. They tried to show how each program contributed to the basic mission of the agency, and how it promoted achievement of the benchmarks.

Higher education weighed the value of its research function, its various graduate and professional programs, as well as its undergraduate instruction. In contemplation of budget cuts, higher education had to consider how its programs advanced the goals of the benchmarks. For example, the workforce benchmarks call for dramatically increased percentages (from 9 percent to 55 percent) of high school students enrolled in technical education programs. In response, higher education made teacher preparation, particularly the training of technical teachers, a priority. Other programs would have to be reduced to accomodate this benchmark-driven priority.

Last February, the governor and her budget planners took the extraordinary step of linking agency funding to the benchmarks. Budget and management administrator Mike Marsh describes the strategy as looking at the state budget as an investment. "We want to invest in results rathern than simply fund an agency."

In preparing its budget, each agency will be required to reduce its 1992 spending by 20 percent. Then the agency will be given two opportunities to recover a portion of its lost funds. First, it can argue for up to an additional 10 percent to carry out other programs it feels are essential to its mission. Then up to 10 percent more may be added for spending that is directly related to the 17 lead benchmarks. This final 10 percent is not part of regula agency budgets and must be negotiated with a manager designated by the governor for each lead benchmark. Proposals are likely to reflect interagency efforts such as teen pregnancy programs cosponsored by the departments of education and human resources.

Oregon's experiment is being well-received in the legislature. House Speaker Larry Campbell sees the lead benchmarks as an effective means of focusing on critical problems. "The lead benchmarks will serve as a spotlight to illuminate a few critical issues. As we make progress, others will move into the lead category," he says.

Legislative fiscal officer John Lattimer is encouraged by the attention agencies are giving to developing specific performance and outcome measures required by the benchmarks. "If agencies will collect data and maintain them in connection with clearly defined mission and goals, it will simplify legislative audit of their performance." However, Lattimer points out that the process is still in its infancy. "Agencies need to do a better job of assessing their performance. The benchmarks can be a lever to get agencies to provide more useful measures of their effectiveness."

Measuring results of government program is frequently very difficult. Social agencies often don't follow the progress of their clients. After job training, how many get jobs? How many are still in those jobs a year later? Such information is hard to collect and expensive to maintain. In the face of such problems, agencies gravitate toward those criteria they can measure--number of clients processed, actions taken, cases closed. Higher education counts students enrolled, courses offered, class hours taught. Such information describes what work was performed and how money was spent, but it says nothing about the quality of the service or the benefits derived.

In some cases the necessary information is not being collected at all or is not specific enough to be a useful measure of progress on the benchmarks. Existing data on literacy, which is a fundamental gauge of workforce skill, purports to measure the ability to read, but it gives no hint of the level of skill possessed. In this case Oregon conducted a survey of its citizens to measure their ability to draw information from the written word. Individuals were tested for comprehension on a variety of everyday forms such as menus, bus schedules, newspapers and pay slips. The state now has a baseline standard to measure how well its citizens can read, calculate and comprehend. The study will be repeated every four years to assess progress.

Some worthwhile goals may not get the attention they deserve because the objectives resist measurement. Everyone agrees it is important for schools to instill creativity in students, but good performance criteria are nearly impossible to draft.

Oregon is also finding that outside forces conspire to deflect the focus on the benchmarks. The state's process of ranking publicly funded health care procedures so that limited resources could be spent more effectively has been held up pending federal approval. The same problem plagues Oregon's attempt to train a workforce.

The full effect of interest group pressure has yet to fall on the benchmarks. It is inevitable that some programs with potent political backing will not measure up under scrutiny. "This state has 237 children's programs in 38 departments. Which work and which don't?" asks Speaker Campbell. "I want to measure which are successful and build on them. Now we don't know. If we have solid performance data, it will help us withstand the political pressure."

Will the Oregon experiment succeed? Representative Tony Van Vliet, co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, is cautiously optimistic. "In this budget, environment agencies are just holding on by their fingernails. It will be easy to lose sight of the benchmark goals. The leaders of the legislature will have to provide continuity for the process, and keep the members focused on the priorities."

Duncan Wyse, executive director of the Progress Board, concedes that the budget is very tight and many of the benchmarks are very optimistic. Oregon per capita income has fallen in the past decade to 92 percent of the U.S. average, but the benchmarks call for it to advance to 101 percent by the end of the decade. Hate crimes now average 12 per 100,000 Oregonians; the target for 2010 is 1 per 100,000. But Wyse sees the benchmarks as a vision of what is possible. "The state should aim high," he says. "We should go as far as we can."

Representative Stein looks to the grass roots to sustain the benchmarks. She is organizing community groups and cajoling service clubs to "adopt-a-benchmark." Without a corps of benchmark champions in every community, the process could fail, Stein says. "It is not something that a governor or a legislator can do and then move on to something else. This will require work and commitment by large numbers of people at every level."

What does the plan to do to promote the benchmarks during the next legislative session? "For one thing, I will keep a copy of the benchmarks on my desk. Anyone who comes in to argue for more money for a pet program will have to show me how it fits with the benchmarks."

Lanny Proffer, formerly with NCSL, is director of government affairs and public policy at Portland State University in Oregon.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Title Annotation:fiscal policy planning
Author:Proffer, Lanny
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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