Fallin’s Oklahoma-Meter Picks Up Praise, Skepticism (Duncan Banner)

By Janelle Stecklein

Gov. Mary Fallin on Monday unveiled an online barometer of health, crime, education and other factors in the quality of life in Oklahoma — an initiative that she says will hold government accountable for spending.

But leaders of groups working with the state’s poor, who provide some of the services that Fallin hopes to improve, critiqued the demographic dashboard as short on detail.

It remains to be seen how Fallin plans to tackle more than 160 areas of social concern tracked by the website — such as infant mortality, poverty, graduation rates, illiteracy and recidivism.

Social service leaders say they fear the online gauges ignore the root causes of many ills and will turn their clients into statistics as government agencies scramble to meet benchmarks in order to receive funding.

Fallin, a Republican beginning her second term, told a room full of lawmakers that Oklahoma will be the first state to link its spending with achieving specific goals, which are outlined on the site (www.ok.gov/okstatestat).

The site’s measurements mirror themes that Fallin emphasized Monday in her State of the State address — healthy families, public safety, education, prosperity and an accountable government.

“The goal is to change the paradigm when it comes to state agency management,” she said. “It will help the public measure if we’re moving forward with our goals.”

Fallin’s website works like a dashboard in which icons lead visitors to an overview of a particular issue, as well as the benchmark that Fallin hopes to achieve by 2018.

For example, the average unemployed worker gets benefits for 16 1/2 weeks. Fallin wants to lower that to fewer than 14 weeks.

House Minority Leader Scott Inman said he hasn’t seen the site, but on the surface it seems like a good idea to hold accountable and “demand performance” from state agencies, especially as Oklahoma faces an estimated $300 million budget shortfall.

But Inman said he wonders who’s establishing the benchmarks and who decides how programs are implemented.

He notes that 1 in 5 Oklahomans currently is without health insurance.

Sundra Flansburg, president of VOICE Education Fund, a coalition of churches, non-profits and schools that work on issues facing families in the Oklahoma City area, said she appreciates the governor using facts to shape policy discussions.

“However, we have some concerns when we reduce some of these pretty complex social problems to numbers and goals,” said Flansburg.

The Fallin administration gives no indication on the website of its plans for improvement in any of the areas she looked at, she said.

That raises concerns that racing to achieve a certain goal could lead policymakers to turn a “blind eye” to core problems behind many issues, she said. Poverty and lack of healthcare access, she said, underpin many of those concerns.

For instance, Flansburg said, her daughter receives special education services.

She lauds Fallin’s push for increased academic performance and integrating youth with disabilities into general education classrooms, but she worries, too. “I worry that we’re going to be reduced to things like holding children back in grades to get a better score in proficiency,” she said.

David Blatt, director of the liberal-leaning Oklahoma Policy Institute, said he thinks the website is a “great idea,” though it’s also “going to be a great challenge” to meet some of the benchmarks.

Tying funding to numeric goals could be problematic, he said. Benchmarks such as the infant mortality rate — Fallin hopes to lower it from 6.8 per 1,000 births to 6.5 — are affected by a number of factors and agencies, he said.

The state can set lofty goals, Blatt said, but lawmakers will never see them come to fruition if the state continues to cut services and doesn’t provide basic healthcare to low-income, working adults.

Blatt noted that Fallin has selectively accepted millions of dollars from Affordable Care Act programs to help pay for initiatives like child abuse prevention and healthcare transformation, but she’s rejected billions more in Medicaid money.

Flansburg said her group is a strong proponent of Medicaid expansion, as well. The money could help address some root issues, like obesity and smoking, by ensuring that every Oklahoman has access to a doctor to provide them adequate care.

Dan Short, founder of Mustard Seed Development Corp., an Oklahoma City group that works with people living in one of the state’s poorest zip codes, said he believes Fallin’s meter is “worthwhile.”

He also believes that the Legislature should focus on systematic issues behind many of those indicators — such as illiteracy or the difficulty that felons have returning to the community.

But dialogue is important to implementing solutions, he said.

“If we are not committed to a maximum for every one of our citizens, we will continue to create a cycle of underperformance and failure,” he said.



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