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Op-Ed: Washington can also learn to spend smarter

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Washington has a spending problem. But the hollow debates over fixing it avoid the more complex but important issue -- namely, whether taxpayer dollars are actually supporting programs that work, and whether failing programs are getting the axe.

The budget impasse between Congress and the president has produced unwise across-the-board cuts to federal programs and agencies without regard to the needs of our citizens. This approach, fueled by Washington partisanship, is not working, and the political posturing on both sides is hurting our economy and people.

America is falling behind other countries in educating its people, meeting the demands of its workforce and enabling more Americans to climb the ladder of opportunity. In that context, we cannot afford to continue putting billions into federal programs without knowing if they produce results. We must create a smarter government that is a better steward of taxpayer funds, committed to investing only in what works and yielding maximum results.

Some existing federal programs drive federal funds more efficiently toward evidence-based, results-oriented initiatives through competition and innovation. Take, for example, high-quality charter school replication and the pay-for-success model used by the Workforce Innovation Fund through the Labor Department.

But such programs represent a drop in the overall bucket of federal spending. Washington needs better information to guide its spending and cutting decisions more than ever. To further enable evidence-based decision-making in the federal budget process, agencies should set aside funding -- at least 1 percent -- for evaluations to provide reliable measurements of program effectiveness. "What Works" clearinghouses should be found in every department of government.

In the process, government must bravely stop funding programs that fail, and members of Congress will have to accept that certain program legacies should end.

These concepts are not new. For years, leaders in both parties have acknowledged the importance of incorporating evidence and evaluation into budget policy. During my time in President George W. Bush's administration, we put a priority on improving the performance of federal programs and encouraged more rigorous evaluations to assess their effectiveness through the Program Assessment Rating Tool.

President Obama has also stated that he is committed to better investments. In May 2012, the administration declared federal agencies must demonstrate evidence in their budget requests, and Obama declared in his recent State of the Union address: "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth." Now is the time to ensure these shared sentiments reach beyond the rhetoric and become a reality.

To improve outcomes for our citizens and taxpayers, the blunt instrument of "across the board" cuts misses the mark. We need to shift the public debate away from the same discussion of more or less resources and toward a new rigorous approach that gets better results from existing resources.

We need to establish clear standards for programs, with input from nonpartisan and independent third parties, to promote a focus on outcomes rather than compliance. We also need to ensure government attracts the best people who are good managers and stewards of limited resources.

These steps will help lawmakers make informed decisions in budget requests and the appropriations process. Through evidence, evaluation and good management, we can fulfill the shared promises of investing precious taxpayer resources wisely to help more Americans climb the ladder of opportunity to a better life and allow our country to remain competitive on the international stage.

John Bridgeland served as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush. He is on the advisory board of Results for America, an initiative of America Achieves.

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