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It’s Time to Play Moneyball for Government

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President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal would invest in programs that demonstrate effectiveness and in generating new knowledge about what works through more evidence and evaluation.

While the headlines about the president’s new budget focus on the big numbers, there is a significant back story about the expanded use of “evidence and rigorous evaluation to improve policy outcomes.”

The president’s proposal includes billions of dollars for pilot and demonstration programs, outcome-focused grant reforms and creating new strategies that pay only for approaches that work. A range of existing programs are receiving increased funding on the basis of strong evidence, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Building Evidence About What Works

The fiscal 2015 budget recommends a number of investments in testing new approaches to identify the “most promising strategies that warrant expansion” if they can show they are effective. These include:

  • Launching pilot programs, such as new authority and funding for the Social Security Administration to test various early intervention strategies that could help people with disabilities remain in the workforce rather than depending on long-term disability payments. Other pilots include the pooling of discretionary funds from multiple agencies to serve disconnected youth.
  • Supporting outcome-focused grant reform, such as the use of three-tiered grants, where grantees receive more funding when they “have proven evidence of how their proposed approach delivers impact.” The budget triples funding for these programs from 2010 levels to $680 million. They include the Education Department’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program, the Labor Department’s Workforce Innovation Fund, and the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Social Innovation Fund.
  • Advancing “pay for success” models, which embed accountability for results into the programs’ design. Using this model, nonprofits, foundations and private investors provide upfront funding for preventive services and the government does not pay unless there are demonstrated results. The budget provides $682 million for various pay-for-success efforts in job training, criminal justice and housing. It also includes a pay-for-success incentive fund that would help states and localities implement this approach to generate savings in the federal grant programs they administer.
  • Improving data collection to aid decision-making. This includes relatively small, but significant, investments in census, education and workforce surveys to better track outcomes of various initiatives. The budget also recommends helping nonprofits “better evaluate their impact and performance by accessing federal and state administrative data.”

Using Evidence to Get Better Results

OMB identifies examples of where “the budget proposes to invest in, scale up or change on the basis of strong evidence.” Examples include initiatives to:

  • End homelessness. According to OMB, a broad body of evaluation research demonstrates that “permanent supportive housing is more effective at reducing chronic homelessness than traditional approaches, such as transitional housing.” By investing in this approach, veterans’ homelessness is down 24 percent since 2009. The budget includes $75 million to assist an additional 10,000 homeless veterans.
  • Improve youth outcomes. The budget includes billions through the next decade to expand maternal and child home visiting programs that provide nurses and social workers because evidence shows that “these programs improve a broad range of outcomes, including school readiness, prevention of child maltreatment, maternal health, parenting and family economic self-sufficiency.”
  • Strengthen employment strategies. The president’s request includes a number of different approaches to getting people back to work, including redirecting $602 million in annual welfare payments to support state-run partnerships with employers that subsidize jobs for low-income parents to help them re-enter the workforce.
  • Support evidence-based international aid. Funding of the Millennium Challenge Corporation would increase by $102 million -- more than 10 percent -- because it has clearly demonstrated success in economic development programs in countries where it sponsors high-return compact investments in long-term projects. Literacy programs in Morocco, for example, helped nearly 40,000 fishermen, artisans and farmers develop reading, writing and business skills.

These efforts build on initiatives that have evolved in a bipartisan fashion during the past five to seven years at the federal level, and that are being developed at the state and local levels. They receive support from foundations, and the nonprofit and academic sectors. So while there are headlines about clashes over top-line spending priorities, there seems to be a quiet consensus about doing what works. Many are joining the movement at Moneyball for Government.

(Image via anaken2012/Shutterstock.com)

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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