May 23, 2012

The "What Works" Movement Picks up Some Political Steam

The "What Works" Movement Picks up Some Political Steam

By: Daniel Stid

Last week Jeff Zients, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), issued guidance to all federal departments and agencies on the "Use of Evidence and Evaluation in the 2014 Budget." Zients opened the memo by noting that, "Since taking office, the President has emphasized the need to use evidence and rigorous evaluation in budget, management, and policy decisions to make government work effectively. This need has only grown in the current fiscal environment. Where evidence is strong, we should act on it. Where evidence is suggestive, we should consider it. Where evidence is weak, we should build the knowledge to support better decisions in the future."

Zients goes on to note that "the Budget is more likely to fund requests that demonstrate a commitment to developing and using evidence. The Budget also will allocate limited resources for initiatives to expand the use of evidence" on various fronts, including the development of new evaluations, using cost effectiveness data to allocate scarce resources, shifting to more evidence-based grant-making, and-not least-increasing government's capacity to identify and fund what works by establishing in effect a chief evaluation officer in each agency.

Zients' memo can be taken as a promising sign in a few respects. This is-in case you haven't noticed-an election year. The White House is thus keeping at least one eye on the political campaign with everything it does. That is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed it is how things are supposed to work in a democracy. The OMB guidance underscores the Administration's confidence in the political support for its increasingly strong stance on evidence-based policy. They have built up an impressive record on this front. If the Romney campaign wants to attack the Administration here, it will have to be on how, if elected, President Romney would take an even stronger stance on investing in what works. Now that would be the kind of electoral dynamic I'd like to see!

In a recent Washington Post op-ed and a subsequent blog post, I've sought to show how the social services industrial complex, consisting of the legislators, agency officials, nonprofits and advocacy groups that have a stake in the ongoing funding and delivery of a particular set of policies, works to maintain the status quo, even when evidence suggests the policies are not having the intended effect. The top-down executive branch push embodied in the OMB memo is one way to disrupt the inertia embodied in this complex. By continuing to build in expectations and build up infrastructure to support what works in the federal budget, the Obama Administration is in effect putting more and more pressure on funding flowing to programs lacking such evidence.

On top of the Administration's push, there is also clearly some countervailing pressure bearing down on the social services industrial complex from the outside-in. The OMB memo cites and commends to federal agencies the recent report from the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy on how to conduct rigorous randomized control trials at low cost. It also points to the Pew Center on the States' Results First Initiative, which seeks to replicate in other states the Washington State Institute for Public Policy's approach to assessing programs based on the returns on government investment that they provide.

These organizations are effectively speaking on behalf of taxpayers who, even if they might disagree with a particular social program, at least should be assured that their dollars are funding solutions that work. And just as important, these organizations are speaking on behalf of the marginalized people and communities who stand to benefit from more funding going to evidence-based programs. To be clear, the combination of this internal and external pressure is not sufficient to create the system-wide and permanent change needed-yet. But the fact that it is becoming part of the conversation during an election year is a very promising sign.

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