Hawks, Doves, and Wonks

It’s June of an odd-numbered year, which means that state legislatures across the country are debating and passing budgets. As I write this blog, about half the states in the country have passed a budget and another nine are awaiting the governor’s signature.

Luckily for state legislatures, budgeting this year has been easier than in past years with a strong national economy and bullish state revenue projections for the next year. This has led to less consternation than in many other years. On top of this, only one state in the country, Minnesota, has a partisan split between its two houses, and 37 states have same-party control of both houses and the governor’s office, leading to less reason for partisan dispute in the budgeting process.

Despite these trends, we still hear the same rhetorical dynamics that come to the fore during budgeting bandied about during this budget season: budget hawks worried about rising Medicaid costs and trying to rein in spending, budget doves advocating for more spending on social services, and policymakers trying to sort out the arguments coming from both sides.

In his 1964 public administration classic The Politics of the Budgeting Process, public policy theorist Aaron Wildavsky lays out a distinction between different actors in the budgeting process.

In central offices (such as the federal Office of Budget and Management or state budget offices), there exist guardians of public funds. These are the budget hawks: actors who are primarily concerned with fiscal stability. Their charge is to reduce spending, increase revenues, and to make sure the state balances commitments across a range of different policy goals. These hawks see expenditures as costs and revenues as benefits.

Agencies, by contrast, are primarily populated by spenders. These are budget doves: they are close to the programs and see these programs working on the ground. They see places where more money would make their programs more successful, so they are advocates for more spending on programs. These doves tend to see expenditures as benefits and often see considerations of costs as imposed externally, more abstract than the benefit that money could create on the ground in front of them.

Where does the analyst fit into this dynamic? Well, the dispassionate analyst’s job, whether she is working for an agency, a state budget office, or a legislature, is to help policymakers get a better grasp of how costs and benefits accrue to all of society. This is why costs in a cost-benefit analysis are measured by how a policy hurts the economy or makes people sicker or less educated, not just in how policies impact the state budget book. This is why benefits are measured by how policies grow the economy in a cost-benefit analysis or how they increase education, health, or other key outcomes in a cost-effectiveness analysis, not just by counting how many dollars are spent.

Hawks and doves will always be here, but increasingly wonks are raising the quality of discussion around public budgeting. Budgeting processes that look past pure revenue and spending and give policymakers a broader view of what costs and benefits they are levying on society lead to more informed decisionmaking. And in the end, that’s the role of analysis: to give decisionmakers the data they need to make more informed choices.