Even American Idol contestants cringe when being critiqued, but when you are a state agency or tax-funded program, becoming a finalist for a program evaluation by the Office of the Legislative Auditor can be downright scary.
“There have been very few reports where the auditor sits down and goes, ‘They’re doing a fine job. We oughta give ’em a gold star,'” said Rep. Mike Beard (R-Shakopee), vice chairman of the Legislative Audit Commission, which selects programs for the OLA to evaluate.
According to its Web site, “The office’s principal goal is to provide the Legislature, agencies, and the public with audit and evaluation reports that are accurate, objective, timely, and useful. Through its reports, the office seeks to strengthen accountability and promote good management in government.”
Two years after the office was created in 1973, the Program Evaluation Division was added. Each year, OLA staff analyze about three to six state-funded programs. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles accepts the assignments from the commission, which is comprised of 12 legislators. There are six House and six Senate members, and it is equally divided between the majority and minority parties.
In addition to Beard, current commissioners are: Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul), Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson), Rep. Mary Liz Holberg (R-Lakeville), Rep. Ron Shimanski (R-Silver Lake), Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park), Sen. Don Betzold (DFL-Fridley), Sen. Joe Gimse (R-Willmar), Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie), Senate President James Metzen (DFL-South St. Paul), Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope) and Sen. Claire Robling (R-Jordan).
The program evaluation division is apolitical, amid the push and pull of bipartisan commissioners.
“In the world we operate in here, you have interest groups and entities providing their opinions and they have goals and objectives. We need that third-party evaluation to cut through some of these issues, and to do that follow-up to make sure things are working as we intended,” said Hansen, the commission’s topic selection subcommittee chairman.
Anyone can suggest a program evaluation, but most ideas are vetted through legislators. Commissioners ask for topic ideas in January, and narrow the list to 12 in March. Then a subcommittee recommends three to six programs.
“People corner you and persuade you to pick their topic,” Hansen said. “When you make that first cut down from 69 (topics) to 12 you have a lot of disappointment.”
Commissioners receive one background sheet on each topic finalist, and then they publicly vote on which programs to evaluate. For example, on March 26 the commission chose three topics that the subcommittee recommended for review this year: environmental permitting, K-12 online learning and the state’s sex offender treatment program at Moose Lake and St. Peter.
However, that process is not necessarily a slam-dunk. Last year, Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown) joined commissioners at the table and pleaded her case for a library evaluation. Commissioners chose it as one of six programs to evaluate; the report was released March 22.
Auditors will spend the next six to nine months mapping the scope of the topics chosen, studying literature, reading peer reviews, interviewing and writing their findings and recommendations. Those being evaluated will be notified; there are no surprise visits. Auditors sign disclosure statements prior to each assignment so Nobles can determine their level of objectivity for a topic. For highly specialized topics, consultants may be brought in.
The OLA is the only legislative branch office protected by the Data Practices Act.
“We get to see everything that an agency has. Anybody that receives public money, not just agencies, but nonprofits and private organizations that receive public money, must provide to the legislative auditor all documents of any classification that the legislative auditor requests to see,” Nobles said. “It also imposes on us a very strong requirement to retain the confidentiality of a lot of material that we obtain.”
In the fall, representatives of programs being evaluated may read the draft report and offer changes or corrections. Their formal responses are included in the final report, which is traditionally published in time for the next session.
Reports frequently are a catalyst for new legislation.
For example, Beard drafted bills resulting from a 2004 report on the Metropolitan Airports Commission. This year’s report critical of the Department of Natural Resources’ deferred maintenance of land holdings also prompted legislative action to divert acquisition funds toward a backlog of maintenance needs.