May 16, 2016Op-ed

Medium: A Federal Architecture to do What Works

by John Bridgeland and Bruce Reed

Federal/ 2016/

Americans have widely divergent views about the appropriate size and role of the federal government. Despite these differing views, one thing we share is a common belief that when the government spends scarce taxpayer resources, it should be investing in programs and policies that work.

The idea of investing in what works is not new. Recent administrations have been laying the foundation by using more and more data and evidence to guide decisions. Congress is also beginning to prioritize what works. Even during this time of political turmoil and distrust in government, we are seeing a strong, bipartisan movement grow around the idea of using data and evidence to get better results from government and to successfully tackle pressing challenges.

From our experience working in different administrations, both Republican and Democratic, we have seen firsthand the importance of shifting resources toward programs and policies backed by data and evidence, and away from those with neither.

Consider the Even Start Family Literacy program created in 1988. This well-intentioned program sought to boost the literacy skills of parents in order to create a home environment more conducive to enhancing the education prospects of disadvantaged children. Unfortunately, after conducting multiple randomized controlled trials, the George W. Bush administration found that the program wasn’t working and recommended shifting resources to other literacy programs that were backed by evidence. Those resources were ultimately reallocated, but only after eight years of spending up to $1 billion a year on a program that was failing to deliver as promised. Think of the opportunity costs of such a delay for low-income children.

By contrast, The Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), a nurse home-visiting program focusing on low-income, first-time families, provides another example of the importance of using evidence in funding decisions. NFP, which sends specially trained nurses to visit with expectant mothers over the course of their pregnancy and for two years after the birth of their child, has repeatedly demonstrated its effectiveness in improving maternal and child health and economic security for participating families. As a result of this evidence, funding for these efforts has been maintained or increased across administrations.

To encourage the federal government to further expand on this evidence-based approach, the nonprofit organization Results for America (RFA) has developed the Federal Invest in What Works Index. This helpful tool educates public, private and nonprofit sector leaders, as well as the general public, on how federal departments are currently using evidence and evaluation to invest taxpayer dollars in programs that work. The 2016 Index establishes a new standard of excellence for evidence-building in the federal government. It also provides a snapshot of where departments and agencies are today, and where they should be directing their attention going forward to get even better results with public resources. For example:

  • The Corporation for National and Community Service has taken into account evidence of effectiveness when awarding its signature AmeriCorps grants;
  • The U.S. Department of Education worked closely with Congress to ensure that evidence played a major role in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, helping shift more than $2 billion of federal education funds annually toward evidence-based programs and practices;
  • The U.S. Department of Labor has increased its ability to build evidence of what works through its Chief Evaluation Office and by proposing that the U.S. Secretary of Labor set aside up to 1.0% of all operating agencies’ budgets for evaluations;
  • The Millennium Challenge Corporation has established a Policy on Suspension and Termination that describes the process and procedures for ending MCC assistance in cases in which partner countries are not living up to their commitments, and has done so seven times out of 33 grants approved to date.

Recently, leaders from the seven agencies and departments highlighted in the Index, along with White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan, participated in an event at the Newseum to unveil the Index, and take part in a series of profile videos on their efforts to embrace a “what works” agenda at their agency.

To help young people, families and communities across the country achieve lasting success — and make sure Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars are well-spent — our leaders must build on the bipartisan progress of the last two decades and collaborate to ensure that all federal agencies and departments have in place the building-blocks to effectively use data and evidence. The American people are counting on it.