In brief

During the recession of the 1970s, governments and citizens alike were angered by the amount of money they saw as being wasted by public administrations. In the US, one cause for concern was the proliferation of state agencies that seemed to have no true purpose. In 1976 Colorado set up a “sunset commission” to call time on superfluous agencies, and Texas followed suit a year later with the Texas Sunset Act 1977.

The challenge

In the late 1970s, “the political mood across much of the United States was one of eliminating government waste and making government more responsive to the people. The zero-based budgeting movement of the Carter Administration pointed to problems with government waste.” [1] There was a pressing need for legislators to reform federal and state administration so that there was a clear focus on agencies’ purpose and usefulness.

The initiative

The legislature in Texas wanted to address, among other things, the roles and responsibilities of the many agencies that were deputed to carry out the functions of government. “The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission was created by the Texas Sunset Act (Senate Bill 54, 65th Legislature, Regular Session) in 1977. The Sunset Act is a comprehensive law that provides for automatic termination of state agencies that have a date for review or abolishment set in statute. The act forces the state government to evaluate its activities periodically and to abolish, or to allow the ‘sun to set’ on, inefficient or unnecessary operations.” [2]

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission has 12 members who are selected to provide objective and disinterested analysis of the agencies under review. It is “tasked with identifying and eliminating waste, duplication, and inefficiency for more than 130 Texas state agencies”. [3] The Commission asks for citizens’ opinions about each agency that it puts under the spotlight and reaches a conclusion about that agency’s utility and responsiveness. The agency will be automatically abolished at its termination date unless the state enacts legislation to continue its existence.

In conducting a review, which it does every 12 years of an agency’s existence, the Commission asks itself three main questions:

  • Is the agency fulfilling its mission objectives?
  • How has it functioned in the past?
  • How is it fulfilling its purpose and how is it using the tools at its disposal?

The Commission also considers any innovations that might serve to improve the agency.

The Commission’s report typically includes a recommendation to abolish or continue the agency. “Beyond continuation, Sunset reviews also focus on identifying areas of weakness in an agency’s operations and recommending specific solutions for improvement through changes in law and management directives to an agency’s leadership. The commission may also consider combining functions of two or more agencies to streamline state government.” [4]

The public impact

In a summary of its achievements between 1977 and 2015, the Commission stated that it had achieved the following impact:

  • “Streamlining state government
    • 37 agencies/programmes abolished outright
    • 46 agencies/programmes consolidated. [5]
  • Saving taxpayer money
    • $980 million in savings and increased revenues
    • Returned about $23 for every $1 spent on Sunset.
  • Providing effective oversight
    • Conducted nearly 500 reviews of state agencies/ programmes
    • About 80 percent of the Sunset Commission’s recommendations typically become law.”

Estimates from reviews conducted between 1982 and 2015 indicated that during those years the Commission had brought a financial benefit to the state of approximately US$979.7 million in savings and increased revenues. This compares with the Commission’s own cost of US$41.8 million for the same period.  It claimed that “based on these figures, every dollar spent on the Sunset process has earned the State approximately $23 in return”.

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What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The Commission is the main stakeholder in the process of agency review, along with the members of the state legislature and the Texan citizens. These last are most engaged when the Commission reviews an agency in which they have a particular interest.

An example of such engagement is the Commission 2014 review of the Texas Education Agency. “The Sunset Advisory Commission ... met Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 12 and 13, to hear input from Sunset Commission staff, Texas Education Agency representatives, and members of the public... The Sunset Commission sought input from stakeholders and the public as it prepared its report in anticipation of the 2015 legislative session.” [6]

This provides an instance of the Commission’s view that “members of the public can provide valuable information to the Sunset Commission about how well or poorly an agency performs its functions. Individuals and organizations usually participate by identifying potential issues for study and by commenting on proposed changes to the agency”. [7]

Political Commitment Good

The Sunset Advisory Commission was created by state legislation in response to a desire to improve government services and openness. It has been in operation for nearly 40 years and is an accepted part of the state administration and an agency of the Texas Legislature.

Public Confidence Weak

At the time of the implementation of the 1977 Act, scandals involving the Texas administration had eroded public confidence in its institutions.

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The Commission’s objectives were clear from the outset: “to determine if the agencies are providing necessary services in an effective manner, and if the agencies or functions should be continued, abolished, or modified”. [8] These objectives have been maintained since then by the Commission.

Evidence Fair

The Texas Sunset legislation can be seen in the context of a nationwide response to corruption and waste. The first such commission was set up in Colorado in 1976. “The Colorado Chapter of Common Cause, a public advocacy group, conceived the idea of sunset. Craig Barnes, a young Denver lawyer, developed the idea from some notepad scribblings during a Common Cause meeting. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Barnes took credit for naming the automatic termination model: ‘it’s like the end of the day for these agencies, and it’s inexorable.’” [9] The Texas legislation was passed in 1977, the next state to take action after Colorado.

Action

Management Good

There is a proper governing body and management structure in place. “The 12-member Sunset Commission has five members of the Senate and one public member appointed by the Lieutenant Governor, and five members of the House and one public member appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Senate and House members serve four-year terms and public members serve two-year terms. The chairmanship rotates between the Senate and the House every two years and is assigned to a House member for the 2016– 2017 review cycle.” [10]

Alignment Strong

The Sunset Commission is well aligned with members of the public in its deliberations and conclusions and is fulfilling a role that citizens recognise as useful and necessary. “The Sunset Commission holds a public hearing on each agency under review. These hearings provide the opportunity to testify about an agency and comment on the Sunset staff's report and recommendations. Public hearings are webcast and archives are available.” [11]

It is also embedded in the Texan political system in such a way that its members take a non-partisan view of the agencies under review. It will try to reach conclusions about agencies that improve their contribution to the lives of Texans.

For example, the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission were merged into the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, to remove organisational barriers and create a more seamless system. “The 1997 Sunset review of the Texas Department of Transportation ... provided additional tools to meet transportation needs through existing resources and without increasing taxes or fees. Key among these tools was establishing a State Infrastructure Bank to help fund local transportation projects, encouraging greater privatization of engineering services, and improving the monitoring of highway contracts.” [12]