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Iowa gov’t policymakers rarely use “cost-benefit” analysis

(Radio Iowa) – A new report finds policymakers in Iowa used a “cost-benefit analysis” just five times in a recent four-year period to make budget decisions about state government operations.

Gary VanLandingham — director of what’s called the “Results First” Initiative — says Iowa is among 29 states with a “mixed” record when it comes to evaluating the costs and benefits of taxpayer-financed programs.

“Those studies tended to be fairly limited in scope and there were some evidence that policymakers had used the results, but more in an indirect way to make a budget or policy choice,” VanLandingham says.

The national “Results First” initiative is currently working with 14 states, including Iowa.

“Cost-benefit analysis is a business-oriented approach. This is how the private sector makes their investment choices,” VanLandingham says. “Increasingly we can do that same type of analyis in the public sector.”

The “Results First” initiative is focused on evaluating the costs and benefits of programs within Iowa’s prison system right now. It could expand to help evaluate child welfare, education, substance abuse and mental health programs.

“Those are the areas that we think are most ripe for states to use this type of approve to improve return on investment for taxpayers,” VanLandingham says.

The group’s national report found cost-benefit analyses helped states “make better investments of public dollars by identifying programs and policies that deliver high returns.” But the group also found a majority of states, including Iowa, are not often using cost-benefit calculations when making “critical decisions” about government spending.