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5 Trends Driving Government's Addiction to Evidence

Image via Fer Gregory/

This is part one of a four part series on "evidence-based government."

Policymakers are fixated on short-term budget austerity measures such as furloughs, pay freezes, and conference and travel spending.  However, there is a small, but growing effort to take a longer, more strategic look at how to manage austerity by finding what works and targeting dollars there instead of to programs that cannot demonstrate effectiveness.

This trend is the heart of what is being called “evidence-based government” and there are initiatives both inside and outside the federal government to use evidence and program evaluation to reframe budget debates in ways that reflect the value being created, not just the dollars being spent.

For example, a recent Washington Post article highlighted the Even Start program in the Department of Education, which was created in 1988 to help youths from disadvantaged families do better in school and by 2004 it was spending $248 million.  But program evaluation studies from more than a decade ago found no evidence that it worked, so President Bush, and then President Obama, recommended abolishing it.  It currently is unfunded.

What’s Driving the Push to Use Evidence? 

There are a number of forces that are driving various advocacy, political, and program leaders to pay attention to performance information, evidence, and program evaluation in government programs:

  • More data.  There is more administrative and other data available within and across agencies that they can draw upon for data analysis.  This greater access to, and ability to make sense of, both structured and unstructured data is raising interest among decision-makers.
  • More analytics. There are more sophisticated approaches to analysis (e.g., not just focusing on the average, but on more granular levels of data interpretation).   Stories in the popular media (e.g., Michael Lewis’ book and movie, Moneyball, and Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise) and increased use of analytics and rapid experimentation in the private sector (e.g., Jim Manzi’s book, Uncontrolled) , has raised attention among public sector decision-makers.
  • More interest.  Congress seems to be more open to supporting investments in program evaluation, even in an era of tight budgets.  Interestingly, there is a corresponding increased interest among federal agencies and they are seeing greater value in performance and evaluation processes.
  • More incentives.  There are encouraging pilots at the state and local levels, and in Britain, which are attracting the interest of policymakers who are facing tough austerity tradeoffs in programs and are looking for ways to creatively invest in programs that make a difference, and identify programs that do not work.
  • More leadership.  The various leaders of OMB over the past decade have been consistent champions for introducing evidence and evaluation into the budget decisionmaking process.  For example, OMB Director Peter Orszag was a major proponent and issued directives to agencies to promote the use of evidence and evaluation. This has cascaded down to OMB career staff as well as staff in agencies, which has led to a range of experimentation and pilots to identify approaches that work.

As a result, a number of initiatives have been launched in recent years in both the federal government as well as in the state-local-nonprofits sectors.

Bi-Partisan Support

Even conservatives see value in this approach, starting under the Bush Administration. For example, his domestic policy advisor, John Bridgeland, is an advocate for a “results” focus.  He said at a recent forum that when he was in government, there were 339 programs providing $225 billion in aid to 15 million at-risk youngsters.  He said he was frustrated that these programs were largely independent of each other in siloed systems and not examined by policymakers in a portfolio approach as might be done in program investments in the private sector.  His frustration has been mirrored by Melody Barnes, a former Obama domestic policy advisor.  She says it is important for policymakers to take a longer view and we need to create the mechanisms for political leaders to do so.  Both she and Bridgeland advocate “investing in what works.” 

Today, OMB leadership is attempting to better integrate its “evidence” agenda with its “performance” agenda.  And as they move forward, they are finding that private foundations and universities are excited by this initiative and want to partner with agencies to help them do this. 

So, what are federal agencies, nonprofits, and others actually doing?  This will be examined in future blog posts.  

Image via Fer Gregory/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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