Four questions for Gary VanLandingham

By , May 4, 2011

This month, CBKB starts an occasional guest-blog series called “Four questions” that highlights the people and organizations in the growing community of practice around cost-benefit analysis and justice policymaking. We’re very grateful to Gary VanLandingham, director of Results First at the Pew Center on the States, for providing our inaugural post in this series.

Gary VanLandingham

Gary VanLandingham

1. Could you tell us about your work and how it relates to cost-benefit analysis and justice?

I’m the director of Results First, a project of the Pew Center on the States. We are helping states implement cutting-edge cost-benefit analysis tools that allow them to identify options that provide the best outcomes while improving their fiscal health. This is more important than ever in an era in which most states are facing their worst budget crises since the Great Depression. The models can help states make better policy choices and enable them to target their limited resources at programs that generate the best returns for citizens. This is a much more rational strategy than making across-the-board cuts that reduce funding for effective and ineffective programs alike.

There are four key elements to our approach. One is to help states implement the best research-based cost-benefit models to assess policy alternatives. The second is help states design policies that work together as a total package or “portfolio,” recognizing that investments or cuts in one program can affect costs and outcomes in others. The third is to help states learn from each other, adapting best practices so each state doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. The fourth is to create the climate needed to make decisions based on results, not anecdotes or external pressures, by providing technical assistance and other direct support.

Our work is focused on helping states implement models developed by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP). Initially, we are supporting states that are working with a WSIPP model that examines criminal justice programs, including prevention, juvenile justice, adult corrections, and sentencing options.

Over the next year, we’re going to help six to ten states adapt the model. Results First will provide direct technical assistance on the ground, as well as virtual assistance online, to answer statistical and data questions as states get started. The first four are Connecticut, Florida, Oregon, and Idaho. As states implement the model, we will create opportunities for them to draw on each other’s experiences. We also will be conducting a 50-state review of the strengths and limitations of current efforts to make policy decisions based on comparisons of costs and benefits.

We plan to help states implement new models being developed by WSIPP with our support. These will examine policy areas including education, public health, housing, employment, and substance abuse. We expect some of these models to be available this summer.

2. How did you get involved in this work?

Before becoming the director of Results First, I spent many years with Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), including serving as the office’s director for the past seven years. Much of OPPAGA’s work is focused on assessing state programs and identifying ways to get better results while saving money. While I was director, we issued more than 420 reports that helped the state save more than $755 million.  Serving as director of Results First allows me to work with many states to help them achieve similar savings.

3. What’s an interesting example of how CBA has been used in criminal justice policy and planning?

Vera’s Cost Benefit Knowledge Bank for Criminal Justice blog has already given its readers a lot of information about the Washington state model that we support. Many people know that policy changes based on the model have allowed the state to save $1.3 billion per biennium, while also reducing the crime rate to a level substantially below the national average.  Instead of talking more about that, I’ll give you a couple of examples from other policy areas that show the importance of cost-benefit analysis.

When I worked in Florida, we studied various state alternatives to putting frail and elderly people in nursing homes. Often, debates on issues like this are between those who want to cut funding and those who want to maintain or increase it. By studying outcomes as well as costs, we found that the policy choices were much more sophisticated than that. The most expensive alternative was not the most effective, and the most effective was not the most expensive. Drawing on that research, the legislature could make choices based on evidence not just on cost, but on benefits as well.

I also saw how important it is to help legislators be fully informed when making policy and budget decisions.  For example, the Florida legislature needed to control the costs of its merit scholarship program.  We pointed out that this could be done in several ways, including cutting award levels and raising the required grade point average, SAT scores and high school course requirements. We created a model that showed the potential savings that would be achieved with each option, and which demographic groups would be affected at what rates.  This helped legislators reduce costs while preserving, as much as possible, the program’s benefits for all groups.

4. What resources would you recommend to people who want to do more with CBA?

States should contact Results First if they are interested in working with us to implement cost-benefit analysis models. We are looking for states that have the data needed to operate the cost-benefit analysis model; are willing to dedicate resources to the effort, including staff with data matching, statistical analysis, and fiscal analysis skills; and have a commitment to making evidence-based policy decisions.

Results First will, in turn, provide technical assistance that may include conducting preliminary assessment visits; training staff on the models’ structure and data requirements; helping aggregate and prepare fiscal and program data; adjusting the models as appropriate to match state characteristics; and helping to run the models, interpret the results and translate data for policy audiences.

We’re very excited about the collaborative work we are doing with states to spread the effective use of cost-benefit analysis tools. It has never been more important to invest public dollars wisely in services that are effective for our families and our communities. For more information on Results First, people can go to www.pewcenteronthestates.org/resultsfirst or e-mail us at resultsfirst@pewtrusts.org.

Would you like to nominate a person or organization to feature in our “Four questions” series? Contact us at cbkb@cbkb.org with your suggestions.

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