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Writing the Book on Moneyball Government

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From the moment the movie version of Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball opened three years ago, folks have pushed to adapt its themes of data-driven decision-making to the federal space. Now these ideas have been collected in a new book written by a conspicuously bipartisan roster of Washington insiders.

Titled Moneyball for Government (Disruption Books), the book repeatedly riffs on the original Moneyball, a tale of how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane put together a winning team with baseball’s smallest player payroll.

“At its heart, moneyball is about crunching numbers and relying on hard evidence—not emotion or tradition—to drive decisions about allocating scarce resources,” write Jim Nussle and Peter Orszag in the book’s introduction. Nussle is a former Iowa Republican congressman and budget director under President George W. Bush, and Orszag was  President Obama’s first budget director after previously heading the Congressional Budget Office.

Many in government, of course, are already moneyballers. Researchers “are coming to conclusions that are reducing homelessness and improving hospice care,” writes former Bush top economic adviser Glenn Hubbard in Moneyball for Government. “They’re simplifying financial aid forms and boosting college enrollment for disadvantaged students,” using many of the same data points that eBay and Netflix experiment with to better reach customers.

When it comes to evidence-based budgeting and decision-making, “rumors of the death of bipartisanship have been greatly exaggerated,” observe Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. They laud passage of the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, aimed at standardizing federal spending data. “We don’t need to agree on everything politically in order to agree to use evidence more effectively,” the senators write.

Speaking practically, managers in the age of data should devote 1 percent of a program’s budget to measuring effectiveness, employ low-cost tools for determining impact and create “what works” clearinghouses to share across government, according to domestic policy advisers under the past two presidential administrations.

Speaking organizationally, agencies should designate chief evaluation officers and create cross-government prizes for innovative approaches, they recommend.

Assembled by a pro-data nonprofit called Results for America, the volume includes brief profiles of organizations that have successfully embraced evidence-based decision making.  

It incorporates interviews with federal, local and nonprofit leaders who’ve played moneyball to good effect. “We need to spend the majority of our dollars on things that have a high probability of success,” says Jim Shelton, deputy Education secretary. “Probability of success is highly correlated, obviously, with having evidence that something works….What we want to do is not only encourage folks to have evidence but also to build evidence of what works.”

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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