In “Evidence at the Crossroads”—a series of blog posts that we will publish throughout the coming weeks—we seek to provoke discussion and debate about the state of evidence use in policy, specifically federal efforts to build and use evidence of What Works. We start with the premise that research evidence can improve public policies and programs, but fulfilling that potential will require honest assessments of current initiatives, coming to terms with outsize expectations, and learning ways to improve social interventions and public systems.
As a lifelong science geek, I’ve always thought research was fascinating, but I never thought it would inspire much political interest. Current events suggest that I may have been wrong.
Research evidence is increasingly at the center of political and policy debates, and much of the federal focus on building and using research evidence has embraced a “What Works” agenda. Even as Congress and the Obama administration are debating various initiatives to use research evidence of what works in administering federal programs, the administration is encouraging executive departments and agencies to apply behavioral science insights in their work. Advocates are proposing legislative language for defining “evidence-based” in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And, in a rare alliance, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) have partnered to introduce the Evidence-based Policymaking Commission Act, which, if approved by the Senate, would identify ways that data and research can improve public policy.
Numerous forces over the past 15 years have shaped both the supply and demand for What Works evidence. On the supply side, agency leaders, advocates, and researchers sought increased rigor in evaluating the effectiveness of social interventions. In leading the Institute of Education Sciences from 2002-2006, for example, Russ Whitehurst promoted standards of evidence that privileged the use of randomized controlled trials to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and practices in education. Similar evidence standards were promoted in child welfare, mental health, criminal justice, and youth development. At the same time, Congressional set-asides and agency investments expanded the funding for rigorous evaluations, and What Works clearinghouses were launched to disseminate the evaluation evidence in education, criminal justice, child welfare, mental health, and substance abuse.
On the demand side, both the Bush and Obama administrations sought to bolster the use of What Works evidence in executive branch agencies. “Spending more on what works and less on what doesn’t” became a catchphrase for policy initiatives that directed public dollars to programs with evidence of effectiveness, preferably generated from randomized-controlled trials. The financial crisis of 2008, and the period of austerity that followed, allowed policymakers to attach stronger incentives to What Works evidence. Since the recession, for instance, the federal government has invested over six billion dollars in “tiered evidence” grantmaking initiatives. In a tiered evidence design, interventions with more rigorous evidence of impact are eligible for the most funding, while interventions with less rigorous or emerging evidence are eligible for smaller grants, with the intention that interventions will ascend tiers as they demonstrate impacts. Federal tiered evidence initiatives include the Investing in Innovation Program, Social Innovation Fund, Evidence-based Home Visitation Program, Evidence-based Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, Workforce Innovation Fund, Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program, and the First in the World Initiative.
Now is an opportune time to take stock of these tiered evidence initiatives and the broader What Works agenda. Much-anticipated evaluation findings from the initiatives will be released over the next year, and a new administration and Congress will need to decide whether to continue these initiatives and in what form. We are approaching a crossroads. In navigating through it, policymakers and researchers will need to confront several issues:
We are at a crossroads in evidence-based policy. Federal evidence initiatives can be strengthened, but doing so requires the will and the patience to learn from the work thus far. Otherwise, evidence-based policy will likely recede into the background as yet another policy fad that came and went. To move forward, let’s take a good hard look at the current evidence initiatives and identify what can be learned from them. We will need to come to terms with outsized expectations, develop ways to improve programs and systems, and determine how the federal evidence agenda can better align with state, local, and practice needs.
Please join us for Evidence at the Crossroads as the science geeks and the policy wonks debate how research can be leveraged to improve social policy and benefit the public. Read other posts in the series, and join the conversation by tweeting #EvidenceCrossroads.