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Efficiency alone may not be enough

There was unavoidable irony in holding a discussion of government efficiency at a comedy club, but five panelists managed to strike a thoughtful tone during a discussion of that issue.

The event, sponsored by the Buechner Institute for Governance at the University of Colorado Denver and the South Metro Chamber of Commerce on Friday at Comedy Works South, coincided with the release of three new institute papers on efficiency in state government, including the P-12 and higher education systems.

The papers focus primarily on state dollars spent compared to outcomes such as graduation rates, not on operational efficiencies such as staffing levels and how budgets are spent.

“Colorado is especially efficient with its P-12 system, but when you talk about effectiveness, it becomes a lot more questionable,” said Robin Baker, the institute research analyst who wrote the paper on that sector.

She noted that problems like lack of state preschool slots for all eligible children and state achievement gaps highlight concerns about effectiveness.

Kelly Hupfeld, associate dean of UCD’s School of Public Affairs, sounded a similar note about higher education. She wrote the paper on that issue.

“We are hugely productive” in higher education, she said, providing only 54 percent of the national average in direct state support for colleges. “We are setting up expectations in our kids” about the importance of going to college, she added. “But we are not paying for that as a state,” instead relying on tuition increases to keep colleges operating.

“We need to balance a variety of values when we’re talking about efficiency in government,” not just saving money, Hupfeld said.

Henry Sobanet, director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting, also was a panelist and outlined efficiency efforts the Hickenlooper administration is making in some agencies and the legislature’s SMART Government Act, intended to prompt better, more goal-oriented planning by government departments.

But, perhaps inspired by the venue, he quipped, “If I have to sit through another meeting on the difference between a goal and an objective, I’m going to be back in the private sector.”

Highlights of the papers

P-12 education

  • “Colorado spends less on P-12 education than most states, due to a variety of state fiscal constraints, and despite our relatively high per capita income. Our student achievement, while not fully satisfactory or uniform is higher than in many other states, so a bipartisan national study ranked Colorado Number 6 of the 50 states on its educational return-on-investment (measured as student test scores divided by spending per-pupil).“In this sense, Colorado’s P-12 education system can be viewed as efficient. The state receives relatively good outcomes for the investments made. But, our achievement gap, between white and minority students, and by family income, is one of the largest in the nation. Efficiency is important, and Colorado has proved to be efficient in providing P-12 education, but further reforms, fiscal constraints, and the need to promote more equity are looming challenges.”

Higher Education

  • “State spending on higher education in Colorado is at or near the very bottom of all the 50 states. And, tuition at state higher education institutions is about at the national average. So, overall spending in this sector is very low. Yet, the system does a good job producing degree graduates. Thus, Colorado is Number 1 or 2 nationally in producing graduates per total dollars spent, a reasonable measure of higher education efficiency. It produces these results by being extremely lean in faculty and administrative staff. Colorado today is also much more efficient at producing graduates than the state was 15 years ago.
  • “While this is a positive picture of efficiency, Colorado is not a top state in terms of college-going rates, especially for minority and low-income families. Despite an efficient system, Colorado citizens should also be concerned about future access and quality issues.”
  • The institute plans similar papers on other sectors of state government.
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