Evidence-Based Policy Proponents Face Cost, Privacy, Political Hurdles

After three initial meetings, early hints are beginning to emerge on what may eventually become a package of recommendations from the congressionally authorized Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

Enacted in March, the bipartisan commission has been tasked with developing recommendations that would bolster evidence-based policy, principally by making federal data more widely available to program evaluators. Such evaluations have begun to influence funding decisions, both at the federal and state levels, although their direct influence is still small.

Statutorily, the commission’s mission appears to be somewhat narrow, but at its first meeting in July senior Democratic and Republican congressional staff urged it to interpret its mandate more broadly.

Continue reading SIRC’s column at Government Executive magazine.

Posted in Evidence

Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program Findings Show Benefits, Challenges of Evidence-Based Programming

When the federal government started a new grants program in 2010 to finance and evaluate programs to reduce teen pregnancies, Hennepin County decided to give it a shot.

The Minneapolis-area county already had a pilot project in two suburbs with high teen pregnancy rates that it had developed after intensive consultations with young people, parents, and community organizations. But an influx of federal money would allow it to expand its efforts to encourage young people to delay sex or use contraception.

The county won a five-year grant from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, operated by the Office of Adolescent Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The money paid for two efforts. One, the Teen Outreach Program, was on a list that HHS had compiled of “evidence-based programs” — that is, approaches that had already proven effective through rigorous evaluation.

“It was all the rage,” says Kathy Wick, initiative manager at Better Together Hennepin, the county’s teen-pregnancy program. ”It was really a youth-development program that supposedly had positive results in terms of impacting teen behaviors around pregnancy prevention and whether to have sex or not.”

The Teen Outreach Program (TOP), which had shown good results in a 1997 study,  involves weekly classroom sessions, community-service learning, and adult support. The county spent about $500,000 a year out of its annual $3.3 million grant to conduct a randomized controlled trial involving 1,644 students in 24 middle and high schools.

The results? The program had no impact.

Three months and 15 months after the intervention, participants were just as likely as students who followed the regular school curriculum to have had recent sexual activity as well as unprotected sex. They also scored no better in areas like school performance, school engagement, educational expectations, and civic responsibility.

“We spent five years very intensively building TOP with a whole lot of school partners,” says Katherine Meerse, former manager of Better Together Hennepin. “Results showed it didn’t have an impact, what do we do about that?”

There was only one answer, she says: “It wasn’t effective for our kids, we needed to move on to something that was.” Continue reading

Posted in Children and Families, Evidence, Government Performance

More Data than Evidence in Evidence Commission’s First Meeting

Will the new Evidence-based Policymaking Commission, created by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on March 30, actually further the cause of evidence-based policymaking?

With just one meeting under its belt, it is too early to know for sure, but the inaugural meeting on July 22 provided reason to worry.

Presentations by executive branch officials, including the Census Bureau (which is staffing the commission), focused almost entirely on improving the quality and usefulness of federal statistics. This focus was also reflected in the meeting’s attendees, most of whom represented various federal statistical agencies, with few (if any) representatives of the federal evaluation community.

Even the one presentation devoted to evaluation — by Raj Chetty of Stanford University — seemed to downplay the usefulness of randomized controlled trials, a gold standard evaluation methodology that was cited as something to support in the authorizing legislation. More broadly, the needs of local practitioners and evaluators, who are commonly on the front lines of evidence-based work, were almost entirely absent from a meeting that lasted over three hours.

Data Data Everywhere

It was a curious start for a commission that drew strong bipartisan support in Congress and from the Obama administration as a way to further the evidence-based policymaking agenda.  The commission is directed by law to issue a report within 15 months of its appointment which, according to an estimate by the chair, Katharine Abraham, will be September 6, 2017.

Continue reading

Posted in Evidence

The Moneyball Debate

There is an emerging debate over the “Moneyball for Government” concept. Two perspectives in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Srik Gopal & Lisbeth B. Schorr, Getting “Moneyball” Right in the Social Sector (June 2, 2016)

Patrick Lester, Defining Evidence Down (July 14, 2016)

Lisbeth Schorr & Srik Gopal, Broadening the Evidence Base Without “Defining Evidence Down” (August 3, 2016)


Posted in Evidence

Promise Zones Program Ramps Up Amid Uncertainty About Post-Obama Era

When the Obama administration announced the third and final round of Promise Zone communities in June, perhaps no applicant was more surprised to find itself on the list than South Los Angeles.

“We were kind of in disbelief when we got the news,” says Heddy Nam, director of the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone (SLATE-Z), a coalition of more than 50 nonprofit groups, educational institutions, public officials, and others that applied for the Promise Zone designation.

The award gives high-poverty communities easier access to some federal grants along with technical assistance – and SLATE-Z had worked hard to earn it. With Los Angeles Trade Technical College as the lead organization and strong support from city officials and Congresswomen Karen Bass and Lucille Roybal-Allard, it developed a plan to boost economic development and educational achievement along major transit lines in an area of almost 200,000 residents.

But a Central Los Angeles area had won a Promise Zone designation in the first round of awards, and what were the chances that one city would get two “zones”?

Furthermore, SLATE-Z had lost its bid to operate a Promise Zone in the second round of applications in 2015. So it was prepared for another rejection. But, Nam says, the coalition decided that it was worthwhile to draw up a strategy to boost South L.A. even if it was passed over again.

The attitude, she says: “We’re probably not going to get this thing, but it’s a historic opportunity.”

Communities across the country have made similar calculations since President Obama announced the Promise Zone Initiative in his State of the Union address in 2013, flooding the administration with more than 230 applications for just 22 designated zones (the number includes some applicants who tried more than once). What is the appeal?

Promise Zones Benefits

In announcing Promise Zones, Obama said the federal government would partner with high-poverty communities to boost economic development, improve education, fight crime, enhance public health, attract private investment, and achieve other goals.

Continue reading

Posted in Collective Impact, Government Performance

House Moves Bill With Career and Technical Education Innovation Program

A House education committee today unanimously approved legislation (HR 5587) that would reauthorize the Department of Education’s career and technical education programs. The bipartisan legislation would also create a new innovation program that would support evidence-based career and technical education initiatives, including through the use of pay-for-success strategies.

The overall bill (detailed summary) reauthorizes the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which was last updated in 2006. The proposed innovation program (bill language for the proposal) is part of a larger set of national program activities that are authorized at $7.5 million per year starting in fiscal year 2017, which begins October 1 of this year.

The overall bill has drawn broad bipartisan support in Congress and support from over 200 groups that focus on career and technical education. Results for America was among the supporters. It worked with members of the Invest in What Works coalition to support the new innovation program, according to a statement.

One organization — the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) — said it was concerned about the overall bill’s proposed rollback of state accountability measures. However, it expressed support for the proposed innovation program.

The bill must still be approved in the full House and in the Senate, but experts believe it has a realistic chance of being enacted this year.


Posted in Education, Workforce Issues

No More “Deals”

One of the strengths of pay for success is that it brings together several distinct worlds in pursuit of a common goal, including nonprofits, government, and the private sector.

As one might expect, however, the cultures of these different actors can also be very different.  One of these differences can be seen in the use of the word “deal,” whose roots can be traced to the world of finance.

At best, this usage can grate on those who come from a nonprofit or public sector background.  At worst, it suggests a certain detachment from the very people whose lives we are working to improve.

The world of social innovation includes many good people with highly diverse backgrounds and skill sets.  This diversity of talent is one of its central advantages.  However, this is one piece of the social innovator’s lexicon that needs to be put to rest.

Posted in Social Impact Bonds / Pay for Success

White House Announces Data-Driven Justice Initiative

The White House today announced a new initiative intended to help divert low-level offenders from jail, particularly those with mental illness or low-risk individuals who cannot afford bail.

The newly announced effort, called the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, will work with at least seven states and 60 local jurisdictions, providing them with a variety of supports from public and private sources.

According to the White House, 64 percent of people in local jails suffer from mental illness, 68 percent have a substance abuse disorder, and 44 percent suffer from chronic health problems.

The initiative will help link data across criminal justice and health systems to identify these individuals and provide law enforcement officials — who are sometimes referred to as “social workers in blue” — with the tools they need to divert them to needed social services instead of placing them in jail.

The initiative comes late in President Obama’s term in office. It is unclear what the plans are for sustaining it into 2017 and beyond.  However, if Hillary Clinton is elected president, its prospects would likely be greater.

Posted in Criminal Justice

Hillary Clinton Pledges to Double Investment in i3

Evidence-based policy made an appearance on the campaign trail this week, with the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee pledging to double funding for the new version of i3 — called the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program. According the campaign:

Hillary will build on the Administration’s initiative by launching the next generation of Investing in Innovation (“i3”) grants—as sustained in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as the Education Innovation and Research Program. She will double our investment in the program, and establish a 50 percent set-aside for scaling CS Education innovations. These new computer science grants (“CS-i3 grants”) will help scale instruction and lesson programs that are demonstrated to improve student achievement or increase college enrollment and completion in CS Ed fields—helping us prepare the diverse tech workforce of tomorrow.

There are no signs yet of a similar pledge among the public positions of the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, but he has said he will work with House Speaker Paul Ryan on an anti-poverty plan that strongly features evidence-based strategies.


Posted in Education, Politics