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By Steve Kelman

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'Evidence-based government' and the FY 2015 budget

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As best I can tell from word searches on the Washington Post and New York Times websites, my favorite part of the President's budget did not make the mainstream media's near-exhaustive coverage at all.

The overlooked gem is the discussion of how the budget is seeking both to increase funding for new program efforts where there is actual good evidence, based on rigorous research, that they work -- and also to provide more funding for efforts to use social science research to find out whether programs work. Together, this approach goes under the moniker "evidence-based government." This section of the budget reflects what grew out of a call in instructions to agencies for this year's budget to include evidence-based initiatives in their submissions to OMB.

So the budget proposes funds for experiments to test the effectiveness of various potentially promising interventions to keep people with disabilities in the labor force or to improve the quality of college education while reducing costs. For some programs where there already exists evidence of success, the budget recommends funding increases. The budget also recommends increased funding for so-called "pay for success" programs in various policy areas, including interventions designed to reduce costs. (In the contracting area, this has been called "share-in-savings" contracting, to which the budget has therefore given a boost.)

However, one thing is sadly missing from the discussion: examples of programs being cut back because of evidence they don't work.

There is a certain bipartisan wonk coalition that gets excited about this. I have blogged in support of this approach. My Republican friend Robert Shea, who was in charge of performance measurement in the Bush administration, enthused on his Facebook page that this was "what playing Moneyball in Government looks like."

But there is also a bipartisan coalition that does not like this. Some Democrats are worried that if you establish the outrageous criterion that we should be hesitant about funding programs that don't work, government will get smaller. Some Republicans are worried about handing too much influence over policy formation to pointy-headed professors who do research. There is a huge know-nothing constituency in Washington that wrongly believes (based on many of the egregious products that partisan think tanks or paid-for consultants put out) there is no such thing as genuine scholarly research following accepted methodological standards. And evidence-based government does not get the ideological or combative juices of either side flowing.

Evidence can't answer all questions, such as how to deal with a program that does achieve benefits, but costs a lot per amount of benefit delivered, or how to deal with programs that benefit different groups differentially. In politics, there will always be a role for values as well as evidence. But surely an additional dose of evidence in political debates would be a good thing for our decision-making processes.

So I would say that if you are inclined to see problems with evidence-based government, I ask you to consider the alternatives.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 07, 2014 at 5:18 AM

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Reader comments

Wed, Mar 12, 2014 Matthew Price Birmingham, AL

As research technology becomes cheaper and more user-friendly, schools and universities will expand the use of such technologies and educate their students more about them and about research methodology. As these new generations of educated professionals enter the workforce, there will be a greater emphasis on evidence based polices and policy evaluation. However, we will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, but we a long, long way from that day.

Mon, Mar 10, 2014

with regards to Obamacare there might be some evidence coming in...

Mon, Mar 10, 2014 Steve Kelman

Al, thanks for your comment, as always! I agree it is frustrating that the Obama budget doesn't talk about evidence for programs that don't work -- though Republican budgets didn't talk about evidence for programs that did work. People with ideas and research don't always win out, by any means, but they sometimes win out, and we want to try to strengthen their influence.

Mon, Mar 10, 2014 Mike Vienna, VA

$1,000,000,000,000 of additional money is being spent since a decade ago. Nothing will change in this town until forced to change and that will be when our ability to borrow ends. Then and only then will innovation, efficiency and evidenced based government will take hold.

Mon, Mar 10, 2014

We really need to consider about voting all this incumbent out that could not come up with budgets to keep the government going. You can blame Presidents but the bottom line is there are 4oo and counting people who need to get it together in Washington. We are still loosing personel to oil and gas companies that are paying more then we are by a0 to 20 thousand dollars more. IT is even paying more then that, the only thing that keeps some of us here is that we are now getting our top vacation time and federal holidays that we will not get if we leave. I have heard a few of them that said they might as well go, if the can pay officers top pay but not the IT staff then they can figure out how to fix there own problems. Get a type writer and use carbon paper for copies, get two cans and a string to tie there network in.

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