Globe Editorial

Deploy auditor to identify programs that don’t work

June 14, 2011

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WITH A few more years of tight budgets looming, Beacon Hill policy-makers are taking a commendable interest in better management and increased accountability. But for this long-overdue effort to succeed, it’s not enough to push all state agencies to run more efficiently. The Commonwealth also needs better mechanisms for weeding out programs that don’t deliver much bang for the buck.

In his budget, Governor Patrick proposed spending $650,000 to create an office of performance, accountability, and transparency. That bureau, which would be part of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, would work with state agencies to develop measurable goals and strategies for meeting them. It would also coordinate efforts to secure federal grants, collect information about possible waste or abuse, and put more budgetary information online in a convenient format.

This subject is also a particular interest of the Senate, which like the House has endorsed the basics of Patrick’s proposal. Legislators see it as a way to enhance their oversight function. Steven Baddour, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, says Senate leaders also hope such a program will eventually lead to zero-based budgeting, in which budget writers periodically evaluate an agency from top to bottom — rather than basing its allocation on what it spent last year.

Still, the state could and should do more to promote regular, rigorous evaluations — which are standard practice in some states but not Massachusetts. Without these evaluations, state programs tend to expand like fir trees when times are good. Each year brings a little new growth, which then becomes part of the following year’s budgetary base. In bad times, meanwhile, fiscal shortfalls are dealt with by spreading cuts across scores of programs. Periodic program assessments would change that dynamic, letting policy-makers focus the state’s resources on programs that work.

The logical person to do those evaluations is the state auditor. And Suzanne Bump, the state’s new auditor, wants to move in that direction. “That is exactly what this office should be doing in the 21st century,’’ says Bump.

To that end, she hopes to increase significantly the number of so-called performance audits her office does. But there’s a problem. The auditor is currently required by law to do a routine audit of all state agencies at least once every two years. Bump has asked the Legislature to stretch that demanding schedule out to three years. Doing so, she says, would free time and resources for more in-depth performance evaluation.

Such a change would serve the state well, re-energizing and re-orienting a watchdog office that has long fallen short of its potential, while complementing other efforts to improve the management of state government.