By Stephen Stuart
Vice President and Research Director
It’s not nearly as visible to citizens as our research reports and the events we present. But monitoring government entities in the greater New Orleans area is a big part of BGR’s research into what government is doing – or not doing – to meet the needs of residents and local businesses. Monitoring lays the groundwork for our research work plan, framing reports around critical developments pertaining to government effectiveness. It helps us develop ideas for events we present throughout the year, including our Breakfast Briefings that invite citizens to hear directly from local and state policymakers and experts on important policy issues.
BGR’s research team monitors more than 70 government bodies, including local governments and quasi-governmental entities in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes and selected state-level entities that play key roles in our local area. For example, we monitor the Louisiana Tax Commission because it has oversight of parish assessors and the State Bond Commission because it approves local government bond proposals and tax propositions. We also track bills of local significance as they move through the State Legislature.
Our government monitoring requires us to understand the duties and authority of the entities, as well as examine factors that could affect or influence their public policy decisions. BGR’s research analysts – Susie Dudis, Jamie Parker and Paul Rioux – develop a working knowledge of the entities they monitor, visiting government websites and reviewing strategic plans, budgets and meeting minutes. They regularly track key agenda items and actions and watch significant meetings in person or via online broadcasts. When it becomes necessary for BGR to weigh in on a policy issue, they prepare testimony, letters or reports to communicate BGR’s views.
Although the analysts conduct most monitoring work independently, our full team meets regularly to provide updates and offer feedback and suggestions to one another. We probe for areas of immediate action and impact. Our group discussions of topics and issues often lead to ideas for future research topics, as well as new or deeper inquiries to policymakers or government entities or departments.
Staying Up-to-Date on Current Events in Public Policy
The primary purpose of our monitoring function is to learn about public policy decision-making by government entities, including how effectively they use public resources in metropolitan New Orleans.
“Our monitoring work often raises questions about government actions that can later lead to a BGR policy report,” says Susie. “And sometimes, what we learn from attending a government meeting will prompt us to revisit an issue that was covered in an earlier report. In addition, the government monitoring work we do keeps us on top of things as elections approach and we produce ballot reports on policy issues, such as tax proposals. Government monitoring constantly informs our work.”
“As a public policy research organization, by nature we need to be informed, whether we report on something or not,” Jamie says of BGR. “We need to know what’s being discussed and acted on by local policymakers. In our role as research analysts, monitoring keeps us updated on what specific entities are doing or not doing. It increases our knowledge of government entities, and helps us as we research public policy topics.”
In Paul’s view, government monitoring goes beyond basic observation. “The word ‘monitoring’ sounds passive, as if you’re in the background and simply taking notes,” says Paul. “Actually, it’s more thorough. It’s hands-on, and you immerse yourself into the topic. You review a lot of documents and delve deeply.”
Sometimes monitoring helps BGR identify opportunities to improve government policy and process. Some examples from recent years include:
- BGR’s monitoring of the City of New Orleans found that it had been issuing taxable bonds, which result in higher borrowing costs than tax-exempt bonds. In response to a BGR letter raising concerns about this inefficiency, City officials committed to developing a strategy to qualify for tax-exempt status.
- Through our monitoring of NOLA Public Schools, we identified significant errors in the 2020 budget proposal and brought them to the attention of school system administrators before the budget was approved.
- BGR and citizens raised concerns in 2018 about the lack of transparency in St. Tammany Parish Government’s budgeting for the Justice Center Complex, the parish courthouse. The Parish responded by adding a consolidated summary of revenues and expenditures for all Justice Center funds to its budget.
- BGR’s review of Orleans Parish tax dedications in 2015 revealed that the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office was amassing a large operating reserve due to unique dedication of property tax revenue it receives. In 2016, the Assessor’s Office refunded $2.2 million in excess revenue to taxing bodies.
- After BGR questioned the New Orleans Convention Center’s fast-track process for selecting a master developer for its large mixed-use development, and then presented a draft publication questioning the sufficiency of the allotted time, the center extended the timeline for submissions and committed to a two-part selection process that would include a second round to further vet the proposals.
Focus on Government Monitoring Will Remain Strong
We constantly look at ways to strengthen our monitoring, ever mindful of our goal to improve the government in metropolitan New Orleans.
“Monitoring government entities is not always exciting stuff,” Paul says. “It’s painstaking work – but it’s necessary.”
“Our government monitoring work helps us to be proactive in different aspects of our work,” adds Jamie. “It helps to keep us on track. And by sharing information, we’re able to help each other. When something happens with one government entity, it may directly or indirectly affect the work or decisions of another.”
Susie says BGR’s strong emphasis on monitoring helps analysts learn how different local government entities address opportunities and challenges over time. Through consistent monitoring, she says, “you’re able to see actions the entities are taking, including measures that align with BGR recommendations.”
Thus, government monitoring is an important tool for us as we deliver our unique public service of informing public policy decisions toward more effective outcomes. Monitoring allows us to know about – and then apply research to – the most significant of emerging policy topics. From this perspective, it supports efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and accountability in local government.
To learn more about our monitoring work, click here:
This article is part of BGR’s Perspectives on Public Policy series, which features insights from BGR team members about the organization and its work in the metropolitan New Orleans area.