Colorado will try to figure out if government programs are actually working with a big grant and a new research lab

Gov. John Hickenlooper said the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab will provide “blunt assessments based on facts, not politics.”

Scenes from the seat of government on the last day of the state legislative session.

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This work will take place at the University of Denver’s Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise, with the effort being funded over the next four years by a $4.5 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

“You should clap,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said Monday as he announced the grant and the creation of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab. (This will be CEAL, which is pronounceable, if not an actual word.)

“It’s an opportunity to really look at what are the components that make good government a reality,” Hickenlooper said. “How do we get the measurements? How do we do that?”

DU’s Barton Institute will hire someone to run the initiative this summer, while the governor’s office will lay out its priorities for which programs should be studied.

Hickenlooper said he’s particularly interested in finding ways to get more foster kids into permanent homes and ways to keep prison inmates from returning to crime and then prison after their release. Work should begin in earnest in the fall. According to state officials, the research lab will have the capacity to run high-quality, controlled studies of different policy options and find out which programs are working, which can be improved and which should be disbanded.

Hickenlooper said he expects the project to provide “blunt assessments based on facts, not politics.”

Colorado already has a State Auditor’s Office that regularly studies and issues reports on the function of various state departments. What will CEAL do that the auditor doesn’t?

The auditor looks at things like whether money is being properly spent and whether programs are being implemented in accordance with state law. This new lab will look at whether state programs are effective in achieving their goals and whether Colorado has the best policies in place.

Hickenlooper said the auditor’s work is largely directed by the legislature’s priorities and “broader budgetary issues and doesn’t have as much of a focus on specific policy issues.” And the auditor’s office doesn’t have the “luxury” of doing a lot of original research, he said.

“There are an awful lot of things we’re working on that we haven’t done before,” he said. “Before we do it, we want to say, ‘What are we trying to accomplish? What are the indications? How do we know if we’re going in the right direction, and how do we know when we’ve arrived?'”

David Miller, executive director of the Barton Institute, gave examples from a similar effort in Rhode Island: Of dozens of programs in the state prison system that aim to teach inmates work skills, which ones are actually effective at helping people walk the line once they get out of prison? And would people using food stamps make different and healthier purchasing decisions if they got two payments a month instead of one payment at the beginning of the month?

Miller and Hickenlooper said the research wouldn’t necessarily result in requests for new programs (and new spending) and should save money in some areas.

“It will help us make better decisions about how we fund programs, and it may be that there are programs where we have met our goals or we decide, ‘We can’t possibly meet those goals,'” Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne said.

Hickenlooper and Lynne also promised that the recommendations from CEAL would not end up like so many studies, sitting in a binder on a shelf somewhere.

“With a low-tax state like Colorado, that efficiency is at a much higher premium,” Hickenlooper said.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.