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Smith: Let’s try to stop ‘bowling in the fog’

Dane Smith//March 17, 2010

Smith: Let’s try to stop ‘bowling in the fog’

Dane Smith//March 17, 2010

Dane Smith
Dane Smith

Legislature and federal officials working to bring evidence into government redesign decisions

Bush Foundation President Peter Hutchinson frequently has used the phrase “bowling in the fog” to describe the frustration of community leaders who are forced to make decisions without enough research and evidence.

The imagery is amusing and brings to mind the more famous reference to “the fog of war,” the utter confusion that disrupts all those best-laid plans when the battle is joined.

But let’s stick to the bowling analogy for our domestic Minnesota problem-solving.

As they do their duties and make choices on spending and taxing, elected officials or policymakers often can’t quite see the pins. They know roughly where they are, and so they give it the good college try. They roll the ball in approximately the right direction, enacting policies and programs aimed at school success, or job creation, or reducing crime, or a cleaner environment and better public health.

They hear the clatter of their ball knocking down some pins or the distinctive sound of a gutter ball, but too often they are not sure how many or which pins they knocked down or where exactly to aim the next ball.

Ham-handed cuts in state and local governments have actually increased the fog density in recent years and reduced the research and planning functions at every level. Minnesota doesn’t even have a separate and distinct state government planning agency any more. That job used to have cabinet-level status back in the 1970s and 1980s.

And although the Office of the Legislative Auditor is highly respected for its trouble-shooting evaluations of public programs and agencies, it’s not the auditor’s mission to set goals, conduct research on best practices, and evaluate alternatives for what to do next.

The chronic and horrendous budget pressures of the last few years are producing some legislative efforts this year, and federal legislation as well, aimed at lifting the fog.

The bi-partisan Redesign Caucus and efforts by state Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, to collect ideas and proposals for improving government effectiveness, have generated considerable interest and even news media coverage.

Although it didn’t attract as much media attention, the Senate’s State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee last week heard and advanced five separate bills aimed at either strengthening the research function in state policymaking or encouraging more collaboration and innovation.

The proposals included: a “Commission on Service Innovation” (by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who noted that the “CSI” acronym connotes a premium on science and evidence), reestablishing and reinvigorating a Board of Innovation (by Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, with emphasis on information sharing and conducting research) and two bills by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, creating a Collaborative Governance Council and/or a Minnesota Coalition for Innovation and Collaboration.

Our work at Growth & Justice on a “Governing with Accountability” report from last year makes us particularly fond of a fifth proposal by Sen. Sandy Rummel, DFL-White Bear Lake, which she has nicknamed the “Smart Government Bill.”

Her bill would set up a legislative taskforce for policy innovation and research, comprised of legislators and representatives from some of the state’s leading charitable foundations.

The Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute would be the academic “host” for the task force, and Rummel said the goal is to create a permanent and “sustainable relationship between the Legislature and our research community.”

One could hope that the legislative proposals lead to something akin to the highly regarded Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Our research into accountability and good-government initiatives kept running into a consensus that the Washington institute, based at the state capitol in Olympia since 1983 and connected to Evergreen State College, is state-of-the-art and respected for the nonpartisan credibility of its research.

The institute’s website,, includes impressive descriptions of the rigorous standards it imposes on its research and notes that its work recently showed the state how to avoid the cost of building a new prison, saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, in another Washington and at the federal level, the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy ( issued a report last week announcing progress toward evidence-based policy reform.

President Obama’s budget includes more than $100 million for 17 federal agencies to conduct “rigorous evaluations,” including randomized control trials, to test the effectiveness of social service programs, according to coalition president Jon Baron.

Another $70 million has been earmarked for that purpose in Justice Department crime-fighting initiatives and $110 million is proposed for evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention.

And the largest chunk of all is the $650 million the administration is investing in an Education Department Innovation Fund, including the Race to the Top competition, which Minnesota failed to qualify for in the first round.

Back to the fog analogy.

As a U.S. Navy aviation structural mechanic, I remember reading a lot of safety journals. And I’ll never forget the rule that pilots must “trust their instrument panel,” not their own sensory faculties, when they were in clouds or darkness and could not actually see their situation.

I think of this wisdom when I hear legislators advance their case with personal anecdotes – “a businessman in my district told me he might move to Sioux Falls, therefore our business climate must be bad”—or recitation of conservative or liberal dogmas that lower taxes or more spending will improve results.

There will always be some fogginess around the business of governing, and for that matter, life itself. But reason and logic, guided by facts and information and better instruments, can clear away the fog, improve our bowling scores and bring us to safer landings.

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.

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