There has been talk for decades of making government, both at the federal and state levels, more efficient and effective. But has anything happened?

In some states, yes. Nineteen have joined a program called Results First, which is run by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the MacArthur Foundation and applies a cost-benefit approach to government decisions, especially spending, in eight areas around education, justice and health. In short, the goal is to assess whether government programs are fulfilling their intent, not in some vague way but based on measurable outcomes. Programs that are not should be eliminated or restructured. Additional resources should be targeted to those programs that show large returns on investment.

Maine is not part of the Results First, but it should be. The program accepts three or four new states each year.

A 2014 Pew report on evidence-based policymaking shows how the practice can direct government funding away from ineffective programs into more promising investments. In Connecticut, the state’s Results-Based Accountability system determined that a $20 million annual investment in early reading programs was having no positive effect on children’s reading skills. The Appropriation Committee denied funding for the program and analyzed it to identify potential solutions. The resulting study found that the reading specialists central to the initiative lacked sufficient training and that schools often used the funding to support early reading efforts for other purposes. Based on this information, Connecticut began to use other approaches, such as adding reading instruction-related graduation requirements for education degrees and implementing techniques based on a reading program in Norwalk that had proven successful.

The Iowa Department of Corrections used a method developed by Pew and MacArthur called Results First to assess the return on investment of numerous jail programs. It found that cognitive therapy, both in jail and in the community, was the most cost-effective, returning $37.70 in benefit for each $1 spent. Drug treatment also had a positive return on investment. The department plans to adjust its adult programming based on these findings to save money and reduce jail admissions.

Texas participates in Results First but also has a long-standing government review committee. The Texas Sunset Advisory Committee reviews 130 state agencies on a rolling basis. It questions the need for each agency, looks for duplication and new, innovative ways to deliver services. Since it began in 1977, 79 agencies have been abolished or remade with state spending reductions of more than $945 million.

In Maine, the job of reviewing state programs falls to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. Its director, Beth Ashcroft, said she has for years made a seemingly simple request: a list of state programs and agencies. She hasn’t received one. Sadly, this isn’t unusual, according to Gary VanLandingham, director of Results First.

The closest thing Maine has to a comprehensive list of state programs and agencies and their missions, she said, is the state government annual report, compiled by the Bureau of the Budget. The document focuses more on a department’s spending and general tasks than measuring its performance based on a set of standards or outcomes.

For example, the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations “continues to meet its goal of transferring the maximum profit to the General Fund for both the spirits and lottery businesses of the State as well as revenue generated from the collection of excise tax on malt and wine and the licensing of distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages.” How do we know? What are those maximum profit goals? By what measure is the bureau meeting them?

These types of questions could be repeated for agency after agency. The first step for evidence-based decision making is to have well-defined — and measurable — outcomes for each department.

Many states, including Maine, measure performance based on how many people are served by a program or how much a program saved, VanLandingham said in an interview. To get to the next level, states should compare programs and services to national models. Results First helps states do this work through a clearinghouse of national evidence-based programs.

Lawmakers recently approved $6.7 billion in state spending for the next two years. They and taxpayers should want to know that this is money well spent. Using evidence-based budgeting and governing strategies, which have worked to improve programs and save money in other states, would be a good place to begin to ensure it.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...