Building the Evidence Base for What Works

In his FY 2014 budget message, President Obama called for “the use of evidence and evaluation to ensure we are making smart investments with our scarce taxpayer dollars.” His message reflects a broad Administration commitment to promote evidence-based policy reform. A number of signature policy initiatives reflect this focus, including innovation funds such as the Social Innovation Fund and the Investing in Innovation Fund; Pay for Success investment models; and efforts to increase funding for programs rooted in evidence such as high-quality home visiting programs or new models of teen pregnancy prevention.

In July, the Office of Management and Budget and other White House offices delivered a memorandum to the heads of Federal agencies entitled Next Steps in the Evidence and Innovation Agenda. The memo provides guidance for advancing evidence-based practices across the Federal Government as part of the FY 2015 budget process and underscores the importance of “strengthening agencies’ abilities to continually improve program performance by applying existing evidence about what works.”

For these efforts to succeed, policy officials need scientifically valid, rigorous methods to evaluate the effectiveness of social programs. For example, the Administration’s “tiered evidence” initiatives provide small grants for new ideas worth trying, medium-sized grants to rigorously evaluate promising approaches, and large grants that scale-up interventions built on a strong evidence base.  The pursuit of evidence-based policy requires that the Federal Government produce accurate, unbiased answers about whether a program or practice is producing its intended effect—whether the goal is to improve student educational outcomes, reduce homelessness, lower recidivism rates, or any of a number of other desired outcomes. Equally important, these methods must be practical to use and without major administrative burdens or costs, so they can help solve a broad range of societal problems without undue burden on taxpayers.

Well-conducted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are widely regarded as the most scientifically-credible means of evaluating the impact of programs operating at scale. That’s why we’re excited about a competition the nonprofit, nonpartisan Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy is running, with funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The competition aims to identify and fund the strongest approaches to conducting low-cost RCTs that have demonstrated potential to help pave the way to a more effective, less costly government.

Other non-profit organizations are also turning their attention to the important goal of supporting evidence-based policy-making. For example, the “Results for America” initiative of America Achieves, which has launched a What Works Index allowing agencies to benchmark their use of evidence to drive better results for young people, their families, and their communities.                                                                                                               

Continuing to build up our evidence base of what works is important. That’s why the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy are planning to co-sponsor a conference next summer to discuss the concept of low-cost RCTs as a tool for building credible evidence to inform policy decisions, and to explore possible wider use of such studies in government and philanthropic spending. We’ll share details about this and related activities early next year.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at  the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Jonathan Greenblatt is Special Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Domestic Policy Council

Your Federal Tax Receipt