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 can produce similar 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 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.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.