Is There a Bipartisan Evidence Agenda?

With control of Congress and the White House split between Republicans and Democrats, there may be little reason to think much will be accomplished in Washington between now and the 2016 elections. But a new book from Results for America — released just days after this year’s elections — suggests that there may be an opportunity to advance a bipartisan agenda to promote the use of evidence in social policy.

The book, Moneyball for Government, is edited by Peter Orszag and Jim Nussle, two former directors of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush respectively. The book is purposefully bipartisan in its tone and authorship, with articles by a variety of former high-level officials in the Obama and Bush administrations, including Melody Barnes and John Bridgeland, domestic policy advisors to the two presidents, and Gene Sperling and Glenn Hubbard, who each served as top economic advisors.

The book does not gloss over the difficulty of finding common ground between the two parties. “This is not the first time a bipartisan group of serious thinkers has come together to propose an important new idea,” write two of the authors. “And let’s be honest: not many of these attempts have actually changed the way we do things in Washington.”

Indeed, while the book focuses on areas of agreement, there is still evidence of disagreement within its pages. For example, in his chapter Sperling emphasizes the need for a continuum of evidence in social policy:

An evidence-based approach should never become a pretext to argue that if [sources of high-level evidence] do not exist right now, we must turn our back and do nothing to address major economic and social injustices … Major funding increases for programs that look promising but lack rigorous supporting research should be implemented in stages, under careful study, with requirements for high-quality evaluation, and with the capacity to course-correct along the way.

Later in the book, Sperling’s views are seemingly contradicted by Kevin Madden, a senior advisor in Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, who adopts a harder line:

Republicans should demand high quality evidence before any new program is created, and Republicans should insist that all discretionary spending be subject to evaluation to determine whether it is having an impact. [Republicans] can then run on having the bravery to make the tough decisions to defund or discontinue programs that aren’t working or haven’t met standards or don’t demonstrate positive trends toward success.

Overall, however, the book’s authors spend far more time agreeing than disagreeing. Many of the chapters are co-authored by officials from the two parties and such co-authorship — by individuals not known as pushovers during their day jobs — is itself remarkable (the back and forth line edits must have been an interesting process to oversee).

Not only have the authors overcome their partisan differences, however, they appear to see common political advantage in pursuing an evidence-based agenda. In his chapter, Madden writes:

I find myself entertaining the same question over and over again: But what about the Tea Party? They’d never go for this would they? … The biggest barrier to overcome on the right is this conventional wisdom — the kind that says that the Tea Party stands against government of all kinds rather than for a smaller, more effective, more accountable government.

The authors’ collective agreement on the need for more evidence is reflected in what is arguably the book’s core — a chapter outlining bipartisan ideas for advancing an evidence agenda that is co-authored by Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former high-level Republican congressional and White House staff member, and Robert Gordon, a former executive associate director at OMB under President Obama (and now at the U.S. Department of Education).

Their 13 recommendations are summarized below:

(1) Create Chief Evaluation Officers: Haskins and Gordon recommend creating a chief evaluation officer in OMB and each of the federal agencies. This proposal would create a single position to coordinate data, evaluation, and performance management, combining two existing jobs, evaluation director and director for performance management.

(2) Increase Funding for Evaluation: The authors recommend setting aside up to 1 percent of each agency’s discretionary program funding for evaluation. This proposal, the authors say, is modeled on authority currently given to the U.S. Department of Labor. (For additional information, see the GAO report cited at the bottom of this post.)

(3) Institute Prizes for Innovations in Evaluation: This proposal would expand an initiative launched by OMB early in the Obama administration to promote newer approaches to evaluation, such as low-cost randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and rapid-cycle evaluations. The initiative was later discontinued due to lack of funding but picked up by the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.

(4) Create More “What Works” Clearinghouses: This proposal would expand the number of federal evidence clearinghouses like the What Works Clearinghouse at the U.S. Department of Education. According to the authors, “even among agencies that have established clearinghouses, none identifies all government-funded, ongoing, or completed research online in one place. And the databases are separate, even though researchers and practitioners often work across issue areas.”

(5) Promote the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis: The authors say that efforts to assess the cost of new initiatives, currently institutionalized in estimates generated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), should be expanded to include program benefits as well. The authors acknowledge that such efforts can be controversial — “how do we quantify the benefits from improving a child’s reading, or stopping a violent crime, or saving a life?” — but argue that the attempt should still be made. “CBO’s mandate should be broadened — or a new office created — to report on the evidence supporting different initiatives and to consider the broad costs and benefits from government expenditures.” They say executive branch agencies should also develop ratings to evaluate and compare grantees according to their costs per outcome.

(6) Build Cross-cutting Data Systems that also Protect Privacy: The authors call data the “key” to boosting performance in social programs but they say the cost of data systems is a major barrier. They cite as an example the funding difficulties faced by states trying to build longitudinal education data systems. They also say privacy must be at the center of the conversation, citing the recent closure of the inBloom data initiative as a cautionary tale.

(7) Invest in Evaluation Personnel: Noting disparities in compensation between public and private sector employees with advanced degrees, the authors suggest civil service reforms may be needed along the lines of those made by the Partnership for Public Service.

(8) Protect, Improve, and Grow Tiered Evidence Programs: The authors cite a number of Bush and Obama administration initiatives that tie program funding to existing levels of evidence, such as the Investing in Innovation (i3) program at the Department of Education, as models. They note, however, that their survival is far from assured: “The key spending committee in the House of Representatives has previously targeted all of the programs for elimination. And because these programs are all creations of the Obama administration, they run the risk of being forgotten by the next president in either party regardless of their merits.”

(9) Grow Pay-for-Success Programs: The authors support the expansion of performance-based funding, such as social impact bonds, and say recent bipartisan legislation supporting such programs should be enacted. However, the authors say that such initiatives can be complex and may not be a good fit in all cases — for example, programs for children without high-cost special needs where benefits may be more long-term and may not generate rapid financial savings. In such cases, pay-for-success could be widened to include funding for programs with the highest levels of evidence.

(10) Transform Existing Formula and Competitive Grant Programs: The authors say that most federal programs do not require evidence and that this should change. For large formula grants to states and localities, they recommend requiring grantees to use a portion of grant funding for evidence-based initiatives.

(11) Replace Prescriptive Regulatory Requirements with Outcomes-based Incentives: As an example, the authors cite Head Start, which they say “has ‘performance standards’ that run to 145 pages and dictate everything from seating arrangements at lunch to membership on parent councils to timing for parent-teacher conferences.”  Instead, they say, such programs should develop outcomes-oriented performance standards to “free providers from many of the current performance standards so that they can try different approaches to helping kids learn.”

(12) Increase Flexibility: Citing waivers of existing federal rules and regulations authorized by the 1996 welfare reform law, the authors say such authority should be extended to other major federal social programs. The authors cite two other proposals as examples of increased flexibility: a proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to combine a number of existing federal programs into Opportunity Grants and another from the Obama administration, called performance partnerships, that will allow states and local governments to pool funding from a variety of education, training, and community service programs.

(13) Funding Options: The authors outline a number of options for funding their proposals without increasing overall levels of domestic spending. These include redirecting funds from programs targeted for spending reductions by the Obama administration or funds from block grant programs “that currently lack strong evidence criteria.”


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