An Exercise in Political Courage: Investing in What Works

“It is such a wonderful, nerdy time in our country!” Kris Moore, Senior Scholar with ChildTrends, recently said to me.

Indeed it is. One of the most exciting developments for the nerdier advocates and policy wonks among us is the growing focus on evidence-based policy: policies that “ensure taxpayer dollars are invested strategically with a rigorous focus on data, evidence and better results, and discouraging continued support of programs that consistently fail to achieve measurable outcomes.”

And while using evidence and data to drive policymaking is not new—historians have noted efforts to advance evidence-based policies going back to the Hoover administration, and it was a centerpiece of the Blair administration in the U.K.—momentum for evidence-based policies appears to be reaching new heights. It is being championed by a number of national foundations, political luminaries, and the White House, which is encouraging all federal agencies to prioritize “increased use of evidence and evaluation, including rigorous testing of innovative strategies to build new knowledge of what works”  in their 2015 budgets.

Kris’ sentiments were by Linda Gibbs, New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, who couldn’t help but exclaim, “It is so great to have standing room only crowd at a meeting about evidence-based policy!”

Linda was speaking at a Congressional Hearing on “Investing in What Works.” The event was hosted by America Achieves, a national non-profit that helps governments focus on data, evidence and better results. The star-studded panel included Melody Barnes (former White House Domestic Policy Council Director, Obama Administration) and John Bridgeland (former White House Domestic Policy Council Director, G. W. Bush Administration).

This demonstration of bi-partisan support is critical, because while calling for funding what works makes for great political rhetoric, following through requires great political courage.

As an attendee who works on the Ways and Means Committee pointed out, “Politicians are concerned that if they commit to an evidence-based process, they will be tying their hands, and have to cut things they don’t want to in the future.” When such a program is politically popular, cutting it could be political suicide.

Avoiding an "Evidence as Political Football" Environment

Melody Barnes underscored this: “We need a collaborative effort to find what works so it is not seen as an effort to cut things based on ideology. There needs to be a place to have a rational conversation about what works and what does not, and to create a political culture and environment which supports such analysis, so evidence is not used as a political football.”

Panelist Linda Gibbs credited her boss, New York Mayor Bloomberg, with demonstrating just that type of political courage in funding what works, and stopping funding what does not. Mayor Bloomberg understood that if his staff would be judged by whether or not the programs they funded were successful, he would have trouble getting honest feedback on which programs did not work. So he instructed his cabinet to “take risks, and don’t be afraid of failure.” Linda reflected that it was “great to be able to do this and not be fired if you fail.”

Ending funding for programs that don’t work takes personal courage as well. Linda shared the personal anguish of telling a program that had “such wonderful excitement and energy” – a program people couldn’t help but love – that they would not get further support. The numbers simply didn’t add up – while the program had succeeded in helping young people complete GEDs, college attendance rates hadn’t budged. And other programs were having equal success with GED completion for one-fifth the cost.

Funding what works means having these frank, difficult conversations:  “The standard for funding should not be who meets with a city Councilmember and brings a client and everyone cries and they pass around the Kleenex. They should also need to bring in numbers and evidence,” Linda said.

Creating a Culture of Data

Sometimes, even paying for studies to learn what works requires political risk. As panelist Bethany Little, who served for years as Chief Education Counsel to the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, reminded the audience, “We are in zero-sum environment so money for studies to provide evidence takes away funding for programs. We need to make hard choices to be willing to serve less people. You need to make the up-front investment in measuring what works.”

Therein lies one of the biggest challenges with basing policy on evidence. With funding on the line, it comes as no surprise that seemingly incontrovertible scientific decisions about research methodology can become politicized.  

John Bridgeland reflected that during the George W. Bush Administration, before making a funding decision, they wanted to be absolutely sure whether a program worked or not. “But sometimes the evidence isn't as clear as you want it to be.”

The same is true today. Melody Barnes shared that within the White House there was “a rigorous debate, which continues” about what standards of evidence should be used to make funding decisions. Everyone agrees that “we need a culture of evidence and data, but discussions continue on how to do that. There is excitement, but also real concern.”



Thaddeus Ferber is the Vice President for Policy with the Forum for Youth Investment and co-founder and Executive Director of SparkAction. He is also SparkAction's nerdiest policy wonk, which is saying something. You can reach him at Thaddeus[@]

Thaddeus Ferber