Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Analysis course benefits state of Wisconsin


David Weimer

News Coverage

UW researchers: Diversion Program delivers ‘net benefits,’ February 29, 2012, Juneau County Star Times


Naya Mukherji

Public affairs students are helping state agencies and community organizations make better decisions and policies.

For seven years, professor David Weimer, an internationally recognized cost-benefit analysis expert, has made his course available to professionals seeking assistance with maximizing economic efficiency. Weimer’s graduate students in the La Follette School’s Cost-Benefit Analysis class take on criminal justice reform, environmental regulations, child welfare, mental health treatment and other policy areas.

“The class contributes to a better Wisconsin by helping to identify policies that are likely to provide more in benefits than they cost,” Weimer says.

On its face, a cost-benefit analysis sounds simple, says second-year student Naya Mukherji, but really the process is very complex. “The course is so good because it teaches students how to think about synthesizing complex problems in measurable ways.”

Weimer’s students must regularly assess the economic value of outcomes such as less phosphorus discharge to Wisconsin's lakes and waterways, reduced prison recidivism, or health problems avoided by reduced alcohol or drug intake morbidity avoided by reduced alcohol or drug intake.

“In a narrow application, cost-benefit analysis serves as a decision rule for selecting policies for maximizing economic efficiency,” Weimer says. “In its broader application, cost-benefit analysis provides concepts, techniques and conventions for assessing economic efficiency when efficiency is only one of the social goals relevant to the policy under consideration.”

Weimer, who was awarded a 2012 Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation professorship in recognition of his distinguished contributions to research and teaching, is co-author of the highly regarded textbook Cost-Benefit Analysis: Concepts and Practice, written with Aidan Vining of Simon Fraser University. Prentice-Hall published the fourth edition in 2011. Weimer served as president of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management and was elected to the National Academy of Public Administration.

Weimer emphasizes team work in the course, which was a very good experience, says Mukherji, who took the course in fall 2011. “When you have five really smart people coming together to answer a complex question, you can be sure the final product is the result of well-considered back-and-forth between them,” Mukherji says. “I would have had more doubts about the final analysis if I had done the project on my own.”

Weimer guides his students throughout the course and, often, after the semester ends, as the students continue to address client questions and concerns. “Dave is the sixth smart person in the room,” Mukherji says. “He contributes to the reports by pointing out ways to improve and how to look at the results in different ways. The changes from our first to our third draft were amazing.”

Mukherji and her team worked on a project for the Juneau County District Attorney’s Office. They examined a program to divert mainly young adult offenders from criminal prosecution for misdemeanors, with the intent of saving the county money and helping offenders gain life and employment skills. The county drops criminal charges for offenders who complete the diversion program, which matches them with mentors, and participants attend living-skills workshops, complete at least 20 hours of community service and pay full restitution. The program offers benefits from avoided criminal justice system costs and reduced recidivism. In addition, participants increase their connection with their community and have a better chance at securing employment.

“We explored deep philosophical questions that arise out of the process of putting a value on something that isn’t automatically viewed as having monetary value,” Mukherji says. “How that value is determined is up for debate, and part of the process is having that debate over and over again. The class really does change our perspective in how we look at the world.”

The students’ cost-benefit analysis found the program has net benefits for Juneau County and would be worthwhile to continue. “This study puts a quantitative analysis to what we know has been a qualitative success,” says the county’s district attorney, Scott Southworth, who won the three-year federal grant that is funding the program.

The five students worked with Southworth and especially special prosecutor Sheryl Albers, the program coordinator. Albers and Southworth pulled together the data and helped the students make connections with the sheriff and staff at the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to get data on incarceration costs and recidivism. As the program was just more than two years old, Albers and Southworth went through case files from 2006 to provide data that the students used to create a comparative dataset, an effort Mukherji says the students appreciated.

Albers says the analysis will help inform county board members when Southworth asks them to continue funding the program. “They see evidence of a reduced crime rate and, at the same time, see the costs that are for now covered by the grant that is ending,” Albers says. “We are hopeful the board will agree that the benefits identified by the students warrant extending the program.”

Weimer, who has been on the faculty since 2000, has used real clients fully since 2006, after a group of students completed an analysis the year before for the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office. Enrollment in the class has grown steadily, with more than 40 students in each of the last two years, many of them master’s and doctoral students from other departments, including environmental studies, population health, pharmacy, and agricultural and applied economics.

Alumni report they continue to use the skills in their professional work — and some bring their copy of Cost-Benefit Analysis: Concepts and Practice to work. “Dave Weimer's cost-benefit class was probably the most useful class I have ever taken — and that says something considering the sheer number of courses I took during my education,” says Callie Langton, who earned a Master of Public Affairs degree in 2007 and then a doctorate in public policy through the special committee degree program. She is now a director with the California Academy of Family Physicians Foundation.

“From Monte Carlo analyses to unintended consequences, these principles serve me almost every day in my work as a health policy analyst and researcher,” Langton says. “These skills have been invaluable to me in my professional career, and have impressed many a boss and politician alike.”

Working with real clients makes the learning much more valuable, Weimer says. “The stakes are higher — someone really wants the analysis. Also, projects for clients tend to provide a more realistic experience in terms of working around missing data than stylized projects.”

Marilyn Walczak has collaborated with Weimer and his students twice and has referred other clients. The analysis they do is valuable, says Walczak, community justice program manager for Public Policy Institute, a division of Community Advocates in Milwaukee.

“Nationally, many criminal justice reform efforts are in the form of reinvestment initiatives that examine how criminal justice and corrections operate,” she says. “Reform efforts then look for ways to achieve better outcomes, reduce corrections costs and reinvest those savings into community-based alternatives to incarceration. Wisconsin needs to follow suit and, generally, key criminal justice decision-makers seem ready to work on change. The analysis prepared by the La Follette students provides essential data and cost-benefit analysis that would not be available to decision-makers otherwise. No one else seems as well informed or prepared to do this work in Wisconsin as the La Follette School.”

“Most criminal justice and correction leaders will admit that they do not have funding to support data collection or analysis,” Walczak adds. “Criminal justice reform will succeed if we can demonstrate that reform changes and reductions in prison beds will not compromise public safety.”

The analysis students put together for Walczak in fall 2011 estimated the impact of applying treatment alternatives and diversion programs statewide. With the assumption that some funding for adult corrections should be “reinvested” in the community to implement evidence-based alternatives to incarceration, the report concluded that such programs can reduce both costs and crime at the same time.

“This analysis demonstrates that investing in these alternative programs appears to be a more effective use of funds to address crime than increased investment in incarceration‐based sentencing options,” Walczak says. She notes that this analysis is being shared with members of the Community Justice Reinvestment Act working group, the Effective Justice Strategies committee of the Planning and Policy Advisory Committee of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and will help to inform and support the efforts by both groups to develop data-driven, evidence based reform proposals for Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources relied on Weimer’s cost-benefit class in fall 2011. The relationship started in the summer when the department contacted the school about getting help with a new requirement to conduct cost-benefit analyses to estimate the economic impact of shoreline zoning rules and rules to reduce phosphorus discharge to Wisconsin's lakes and waterways. The agency hired two students as limited-term employees, says Tim Ryan, a DNR water resources engineer who worked with Weimer’s class. “The students began collecting information to use in the class projects. This worked out very well for us, and the students are continuing to work for us reformatting and expanding on the analysis performed by the class.”

The DNR is using the analyses as base documents in preparing economic impact analyses to submit to the Legislature as required under 2011 Wisconsin Act 32, Ryan says. “We are also using these as templates for economic impact analysis for future rule-making efforts.”

“The analyses are of great benefit to both DNR and the people of Wisconsin,” Ryan adds. “The requirement to complete economic impact analysis for our rules is a new one, and we did not have staff on hand with expertise in these areas. It would have been very challenging for us to try and figure this all out on our own. It was very helpful to get high-quality assistance for a relatively low cost.”

All these results come about in large part due to the dedication of the students and Weimer’s guidance and dedication. “Dave is a good teacher and a great guide,” Mukherji says. “What we were learning is so technical that we need an expert to help us. Dave is meticulous and he doesn’t shy away from telling us how to improve our work, but he does so in an impartial, nonjudgmental way. That’s what makes him a good teacher. He does not take the easy way out. He expects good work.”