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Tue July 12, 2011
Community Impact Series -- Bureau of Governmental Research
By Ian McNulty
New Orleans, La. –
We periodically hear from politicians about trimming fat, sharpening the pencil and taking a hard look at priorities. Usually this talk comes up around budget time, or maybe election time. But throughout the year, the New Orleans-based Bureau of Governmental Research, or BGR, is at work analyzing the systems and the policies behind those budgets. It examines whether taxpayers are getting good deals for their money and how effectively government policies address community issues. The group lays out the facts, connects the dots and demonstrates what it all means for residents.
"The problem with ineffective, inefficient or corrupt government is that the public receives less in the way of service and less in the way of infrastructure than it would otherwise receive," says Janet Howard, president of BGR. "And if you look around New Orleans, we are starved in those areas. Everyone suffers from it."
"You're doing without services you need, or your taxes are going to a level higher than they should be. So the public pays one way or another and there's usually a combination of the two involved," she says.
The group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog with a history dating back to 1932. Today, its researchers analyze government policy, finance and management in the greater New Orleans region, and they present their findings through reports to the public. The goal is to infuse public policy issues with facts rather than political planks.
"We're providing data and we're also providing recommendations," says Howard. "We're not just sitting there saying, this is broken and here's why it's broken.' We're saying, this is broken, here are your options for fixing it and here's how we think it really should be done.' So we're trying to give a roadmap to correct something."
"Part of what we do is try to give enough facts so that even if you don't agree with the conclusions, you have the information that you need to analyze a problem too," she says.
These issues are often complex and technical, and sometimes they're political hot potatoes. For instance, the group lately has been looking at the property tax exemption for nonprofits -- how broadly it's applied, how it's administered and how it impacts others. It's part of the group's commitment to examine bedrock policy issues, even when they're controversial or politically unpopular.
"You can't ignore an issue just because maybe it can't be dealt with in the political arena in a given moment," Howard says. "You go to a topic, you revisit a topic over time. A lot of the analysis, the information, it actually becomes part of the mainstream, it seeps into the psyche and at that point you're ready for change."
New Orleans seems more attuned to change as it continues to rebuild. That means more public debate, and more work for BGR. But as new issues emerge, Howard says BGR's independent, nonpartisan approach remains its cornerstone.
"Our work depends on our reputation for objectivity and accuracy. If we delivery work that does not meet those criteria, there's no reason to listen to us," she says. "Our goal is to represent the man on the street, not the politicians or the politically connected."
Learn more about the Bureau of Governmental Research at BRG.org.