The nitty-gritty of going beyond GDP

Original Reporting | By Eric Kroh |

Oregon: good intentions, but how much progress?

Oregon’s indicator program, Oregon Benchmarks, has been widely perceived as one of the preeminent indicator systems in the country since it was adopted early in the 1990s, but it has not always been supported (see box), and questions remain about how well-integrated the benchmarks have been with policy development.

According to Oregon state representative Jefferson Smith, the Oregon Benchmarks program has not been sufficiently linked as a matter of law and structure to policymaking. “We get these benchmarks, great, but it’s not doing enough to inform our policy choices.”

If officials refuse to address a problem, then indicators can serve as a way to spur the community into action, the Jacksonville Community Council’s Ben Warner said.

On July 6, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber signed a bill sponsored by Smith that directs the state’s Department of Administrative Services to integrate Oregon Benchmarks with the legislative budget and policy process. The bill does not specify how that process should be implemented, but Smith had his own ideas for how to go about it.

To raise awareness of the benchmarks among policymakers, the indicator system should have a lobbyist or several lobbyists to inform them about how policy initiatives would affect benchmarks, Smith said. 

“There needs to be talented human time applied to communicating with decision makers,” Smith said. “I can imagine it being a lobbyist who went around and met with everybody and said, ‘Hey, here’s some of the stuff that we’re thinking about, here’s what the indicators are saying now, here’s what the policy impacts of the following pieces of legislation might be.’”

Hruby from the Truckee Meadows nonprofit said she thought having a lobbyist dedicated to indicators would be helpful because she did not have time to do that work herself. “I did my fair part sending as much indicator data as I could…in our last legislative session, related to particular bills,” Hruby said. “But you’ve got to have the time to track the bills to do that, which requires a lobbyist.”

Smith offered his view that, “I don’t think one thing will make [Oregon Benchmarks] sufficiently linked to policymaking. I think it’s going to take several things.”

Among his other suggestions:

• having all incoming state legislators go through an orientation process to familiarize them with the benchmarks and thereby help them start thinking about policy ideas that could address problems identified by the indicators.

• having the benchmarks be linked to the governor’s state of the state address. (“Imagine a State of the State address that wasn’t merely a few generalized plaudits and troubles and then an announcement of the governor’s favorite next initiatives,” Smith said. “What if it also included an evaluation of where we are?”)

• having a required impact statement that would show how the proposed legislation would influence benchmarks. (Smith gave the example in the context of an appropriations bill: “If we defund higher education by another 10 percent, that’s going to reduce the number of college-educated people we have by blank percent.”)



Duncan Wyse was executive director of the Oregon Progress Board, the body that oversees Oregon Benchmarks, when the benchmarks were instituted in the early 1990s. The governor of Oregon — at the time Barbara Roberts — served as chair of the Progress Board, and Wyse said she embraced the benchmarks and integrated them into policy proposals that she would present to the legislature. Roberts also tied the benchmarks to the budget process by promising state agencies more funding if they could show their programs had a positive influence on relevant benchmarks, according to a 2004 GAO report. The Progress Board estimated that the policy in 1993 “resulted in a shift in the budget distribution worth an estimated $130 million toward programs aimed at the lead benchmarks,” the report said.

When the Oregon benchmarks were created, Democrats held both the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. When Republicans gained control of the legislature in the 1994 elections, the program stumbled, Wyse said. The Republican caucus, some of whom felt that the benchmarks represented a partisan agenda, did not approve a bill to reauthorize the Progress Board, according to the GAO report. But then-Governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, had already approved a two-year budget for the board, thus keeping the program alive.

A new executive director of the board refreshed the benchmarks and renewed support for them, which lasted until recently, Wyse said. When Republicans again gained control of the legislature in 2009, funding for the Progress Board dried up.

As the GAO put it in its June report, “In the Oregon legislature, the fact that legislative term limits were instituted exacerbated difficulties already present due to the legislature’s turnover rate, as, over time, there were fewer members who understood the purpose of the benchmarks or had a desire to use them to inform their decision making.”


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