May 29, 2014

Crunch Time for the Administration's Focus on Evidence

As the clock runs down for the Obama Administration, now is the time for it to put more muscle behind its efforts to fund "what works" for social benefit.

Photo Credit: Pete Sousa

To those of us who believe in the potentially transformative power of "funding what works," no player looms larger than the federal government, which despite recent budget pressures remains by far the biggest funder of programs to drive social benefit. This is why the many efforts of the Obama Administration to increase the use of evidence in spending decisions have been cause for such hope. But with its remaining time in office dwindling, the Administration needs to power up to secure its legacy and increase the likelihood that future administrations continue to push forward.

I recently attended a very productive and thought-provoking conference—"What Next Steps are Required to Get Government to Play Moneyball?" sponsored by Results for America (RFA)—that highlighted the Obama Administration's unresolved record on evidence-based funding. On one hand, even some of the administration's critics have conceded that it has surpassed previous ones in advancing the cause of evidence-based resource allocation. It has created an array of innovation funds, increased funding for designated "tiered-evidence" programs to promote home visitation and teen pregnancy prevention, issued general directives encouraging greater use of evidence in the federal budget process, and launched new initiatives such as "pay for success."

On the other hand, the stark reality is that despite these efforts, the amount of federal spending driven by evidence of effectiveness most likely remains astonishingly small—probably at best a few billion dollars out of more than a half-trillion dollars of annual non-defense discretionary outlays. I say "most likely" because at present we simply don't know what the true figure is, much less how it has changed over time or how it varies by department or agency.

With the Administration's time running short, it's critical that the President and his team carefully pick their shots and concentrate efforts where significant progress in the next two years could have positive effects well beyond January 2017. At least two major points of focus are worthy of consideration. Although the challenges are daunting, both represent areas where the Administration has created a platform for greater success. The first move would be to create and promote a consistent, simple set of summary metrics that clearly set forth the federal government's performance in funding programs based on evidence of results. Doing so would reinforce evidence-based funding as a true priority and lay the groundwork for greater focus and accountability by federal agencies moving forward. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) seems the logical agency to task with the creation of these metrics, perhaps utilizing its own "tiered-evidence" framework, which defines three levels of evidence—preliminary, moderate and strong—based on its degree of rigor and validity.

This is not a simple or straightforward undertaking, of course. There are no established standards for what constitutes "evidence-based," the commitment of federal departments to embracing evidence clearly varies, and OMB has many competing priorities. Indeed, the second Bush Administration's fitful attempts to rate the effectiveness of federal departments and agencies (using the Program Assessment Rating Tool) stands as an object lesson in the complexities and vagaries of such efforts.

Still, as the cliché goes, you manage what you measure, so it's important to establish transparent metrics. OMB and certain departments, notably the U.S. Department of Education, have already taken limited steps in this direction. These efforts should be refined and expanded, and—most important—published, so the public can know where its money is being best spent. Doing its part, RFA has developed an extensive dashboard of very helpful agency-based indicators, but these don't carry the President's imprimatur.

The second major point of focus for the Administration should be to accelerate efforts to inject greater use of evidence into the so-called "formula" grant programs. In stark contrast to the modestly budgeted innovation funds and other tiered-evidence initiatives, these programs represent tens of billions of dollars that for the most part are not subject to allocation based on any data-driven assessment of their effectiveness.

As with metrics, there are sizable obstacles to implementation. Inevitably, formula grants have developed large, entrenched constituencies that are likely to resist change. And the most significant changes are often achievable only through congressional action, which obviously compounds the difficulties.

Nonetheless, the evidence-based funding movement is making progress. One particularly promising approach—promoted by "what works" proponents as an alternative to reforming formula programs wholesale—is to increase the percentage of funds within a given program that are allocated via evidence-based competitions. Noteworthy recent successes include:

  • The Mental Health Service Grant Program: the FY 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Act provides for at least a 5-percent set-aside for the Mental Health Block Grant program of the Department of Health and Human Services. That's approximately $24 million for evidence-based programs that address the needs of individuals with early serious mental illness.
  • Performance Partnership Pilots: the FY 2014 appropriations act also includes the authority to establish up to 10 pilots that will enable communities to blend competitive and formula grant funding from various agencies to support cross-agency, data-driven outcomes for disconnected youths.
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: the FY 2015 Administration budget requested that the Secretary of Education be able to reserve up to $100 million for competitive grants to states to identify and implement promising evidence-based reforms that improve service delivery for children with disabilities.

It's crunch time. The clock is running down and formidable opposition remains on the court. Fortunately, the ball is in the hands of a President who has established his cred as a leader of the "what works" movement. The question is how hard he and his team will drive to the hoop.

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