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By Steve Kelman

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What 'Moneyball for Government' really means

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I first got to know John Kamensky when he was a detailee from the Government Accountability Office, working as a senior staffer for Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government" program in the 1990s. He is now at the IBM Center for the Business of Government -- still working on improving government management and performance, just from a different berth.

I recently noticed an article John has written for The Business of Government, IBM's quarterly compendium of opinion, interviews, and discussions of research they have sponsored on government management, called Is Moneyball Government the Next Big Thing?

In case any readers have been living under a rock the last several years, Moneyball was a 2004 best-seller by Michael Lewis, later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, about how the manager of the Oakland A's baseball team used data to select players whose actual performance the marketplace undervalued. The book was a harbinger of a dramatic growth of "data analytics" in the business world -- crunching data to help companies catch market opportunities and improve performance.

Following the normal pattern in which hot private-sector management trends often make it into government after a delay, the term "Moneyball for Government" has been appropriated by many advocates of what had otherwise been called "evidence-based government" -- undoubtedly a sexier moniker for what they are trying to make happen. (The community of people interested in this movement now even has its own Twitter handle -- @Moneyball4Gov. A long handle, but I am guessing they wanted to avoid the shorter "@Money4Gov.")

It is apparent from John's piece -- though he doesn't make the distinction quite as clearly as I'd like -- that "Moneyball for Government" can have two meanings. Both involve using data, but using it in different ways.

The first is to use data to make decisions about which programs "work" and which do not, with the purpose of the exercise being to help make budgetary decisions. Kamensky cites the example of an early childhood program called Even Start, which was designed to prepare poor kids for school but did not show evidence of success and was eliminated by the Obama administration. The administration is also experimenting with "scale-up grants" to provide more funding for local initiatives where there already is good evidence of success, and "validation grants" for programs with some, but limited, evidence of success. With validation grants, the limited additional funding includes money for more evaluation research.

Using evidence to propose budget plus-ups or cutbacks has, of course, been around for a long time -- very notably as part of efforts in the Bush administration to connect performance and budgeting. Not surprisingly, these efforts often run into political headwinds from interest groups whose ox is gored. But anyone who believes in good government should want the role of evidence in these decisions to grow.

But John's piece also indicates that "Moneyball for Government" can also mean something different, more akin to what Oakland A's manager Billy Beane actually did in the original book. Nobody was suggesting that evidence Beane developed would lead to the Oakland A's, or baseball as a whole, being expanded or eliminated. Instead, organizational leadership was using data to improve the performance of the existing organization -- in this case, improving the A's win-loss record by using data to learn which players to seek. This version of Moneyball is closer to managerial use of performance measures to improve performance.

These two ways of doing "Moneyball for Government" have different customers -- budget offices, legislators, and the media for program decisions; agency managers for performance improvement efforts. They have different data requirements: Those who want to use data for budget decisions often insist on expensive evaluations, as often as possible using the "gold standard" of randomized experiments, while managers using data to learn about what works and doesn't in in existing programs are able to proceed pragmatically using much less data. And the two communities don't talk very much to each other, even at the Office of Management and Budget, where both are well-represented.

Perhaps a priority for strengthening "Moneyball for Government" is to get these two communities talking with and supporting each other. There is also a real need in government to train government managers to do simplified versions of data analysis for management improvement purposes.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 25, 2014 at 2:29 PM

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Reader comments

Sun, Aug 3, 2014 Stuart

But isn't there some compatibility between the two? If data indicates that a program isn't working, that could suggest eliminating it. But it could also suggest that it needs to be improved. Hopefully the same data could indicate the types of improvements that are necessary.

Tue, Jul 29, 2014

How about if we use data to find out what government agencies are actually doing what the American People want in a cost effective manner and thereby reduce 75% of the Fed!

Mon, Jul 28, 2014 Steve Kelman

Mark, of course evidence use in government does not assure final decisions based on evidence. However the chances are greater than if evidence is not even seriously considered. Also, these kinds of political problems you mention apply less to using data for performance improvement in existing programs.

Sun, Jul 27, 2014 Mark

Sure, "Moneyball for Government " SOUNDS great - but what ACTUALLY happens when Data doesn't match the current Politician's Dogma in Government...? Staff are pressured to tweak Numbers and Questions in order to support "Decision-Based Evidence Making".

Sat, Jul 26, 2014 Gorgonzola

Some of us are old enough to spot certain cycles of progress repeating themselves. The first ones repeat because people forgot about the earlier go. The second group repeat because people were in denial about what a blood example it was. The fact is, there have been few innovations in Federal government management and administration that have stuck and borne fruit in the las 40 years. Yet there is a growing number of savants who simply want to celebrate success--even in the absence of it. Today's OMB is the perfect example. And it is my honor and burden to be fully implicated in his ongoing failures to manage the budget and strain to include the quality of management in the agencies. Agency management, from goal setting and strategic process to output at the worker level show massive signs of continuing to slip back.

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