State and local governments must determine how they balance spending and revenues every year. Count Alabama among those putting in place mechanisms to make sure they get the most out of the dollars they spend.
“One important way we can serve our constituents is by being careful stewards of public resources,” said state Senator Arthur Orr (R). “One of the ways to do that is by ensuring that we get the biggest bang for each programmatic buck.”
To help with that task, Governor Kay Ivey (R) signed legislation on June 10 creating the Alabama Commission on the Evaluation of Services, known as ACES. The commission, with Orr as its first chairman, will evaluate how effective state services are, and then advise state leaders on how best to allocate resources based on those evaluations. Policymakers want ACES to help ensure that tax dollars are spent to do the most good for the most Alabamians.
Although Alabama is not the first state to create a commission to evaluate public services, the setup of ACES highlights some hallmarks of successful efforts. For example, the members of the commission represent both the legislative and executive branches, as well as both political parties. The commission has 14 members, including six from the Legislature, six appointed by the governor, and two nonvoting members.
In some states that have moved to more evidence-based decision-making, the legislatures drive the changes. For example, a joint legislative committee in Mississippi routinely looks at performance evaluations and expenditure reviews to assess agency programming. Elsewhere, the executive branch takes the lead: In Iowa, the Department of Corrections developed a way to ensure consistent implementation of programs across its facilities. But commitments across the branches of government help bring consistent and sustained success. Creating long-lasting culture change that prioritizes using evidence in decision-making requires the support of stakeholders from both branches and across the aisle.
Alabama leadership recognized this early on. “The only way we can do this is if we are a collaborative effort,” Kelly Butler, the state director of finance, said of the new commission.
These efforts also work best if supported by full-time staff: ACES currently employs four people to oversee the research, analysis, and evaluation of state programs. Such a dedicated staff allows the commission to focus on the complex assessment work and ensures that employees have time to develop expertise in the growing, nationwide field of evidence-based policymaking. With that capacity, the ACES team can serve as a resource to multiple agencies, lawmakers, and executive staff.
The panel also benefits from policymakers setting short- and long-term goals. From its start, ACES had both short-term goals—such as building a catalogue of state services—and longer-term ones, such as providing support to state agencies so they can evaluate their own programs. Setting clear and discrete benchmarks at the beginning of the endeavor can ensure that all participants agree on the goals—and on how to measure progress.
ACES is the latest development in Alabama’s growing work in evidence-based policymaking. In 2017, after partnering with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative to examine the effectiveness of public programs, the Alabama Legislative Services Agency analyzed 52 mental health programs and issued a report summarizing their effectiveness.
Steered by these findings and by lessons learned during the assessment process, the Legislature in 2018 created the Alabama Support Team for Evidence-based Practices (ASTEP), which was charged with helping agencies compile data in ways that help decision-makers understand underlying issues. Lawmakers later refined their goals, and ASTEP was reimagined as ACES.
The full membership of ACES convened for the first time on Sept. 30. The group plans to meet regularly to consider ways to maximize the value of state resources and expand innovative services, while also strengthening accountability and transparency. Although there is still considerable work to do, the membership, structure, and goals of Alabama’s commission are promising signals for what lies ahead.
Sara Dube is the project director and Carli Dimino is a senior associate for the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative.