Friday, January 2, 2015

Funding Government That Works

Ron Haskins was a policy analyst for House Republicans in the 1990's and an advisor to President George W. Bush on social policy. But recently he took to the editorial pages of the New York Times to urge the upcoming Republican Congress to financially support an Obama initiative.
Hardly anyone knows it, but since its earliest days the Obama administration has been pursuing the most important initiative in the history of federal attempts to use evidence to improve social programs...

A growing body of evidence shows that a few model social programs — home visits to vulnerable families, K-12 education, pregnancy prevention, community college and employment training — produce solid impacts that can last for many years.

Expansion of these programs has been possible because the Obama administration, building on work by the Bush administration, has insisted that money for evidence-based initiatives go primarily to programs with rigorous evidence of success, as measured by scientifically designed evaluation...Since 2010, these principles have been the basis for competitive grants to more than 1,400 programs across the country...

The Obama evidence-based initiative has charted a new path that could reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity for the disadvantaged. Rather than cut these programs, Congress should extend funding so that successful programs can expand to new sites while programs that are not working are improved or abandoned. Social policy is too important to be left to guesswork.
This kind of pragmatic approach to social policy is critical for liberals to embrace because the best way to advance a progressive agenda is to demonstrate that government works.

I will, however, offer a couple of caveats. The kind of evaluation Haskins is talking about is incredibly expensive. Small social programs around the country are likely producing these kinds of results but lack access to the resources needed to implement rigorous evaluation. Conversely, low-cost evaluations can easily be manipulated to suggest outcomes that are oftentimes not valid. Furthermore, the "science" of evidence-based evaluation is not as settled as Haskins implies.

We shouldn't fool ourselves that the kind of process the Obama administration has embraced is simple. But I agree that it is one of the most important unnoticed things this President has done. We all need to engage in the challenging work of holding government programs accountable to produce results.

1 comment:

  1. This is very powerful and very new information. Since I work with a project to create union worker coops (not at all funded by government money!) I find this very interesting. Small, incremental and often local efforts can and do have huge impacts, but yes, at the start, the size and scale are elusive in data gathering. That does NOT make them irrelevant. If it were a huge success already, we would not need funding! We really do need to pursue this inquiry on many levels around many issues. I'd never thought about this. Thank you for posting this very thought-provoking piece.