Keeping Score: Using Evidence to Improve Lives

Only a limited number of government programs use data and evidence to guide funding choices or conduct evaluations to understand the impact after programs are implemented, meaning we know startlingly little about which government programs are working and which are not.
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As communities continue to feel the painful ripple effect of across the board sequestration cuts by the federal government, it prompts a question: What would be the impact of budget cuts if these cuts were instead determined based on which federal investments are actually delivering the best impact?

Unfortunately, it is harder than most would think for the federal government to make decisions based on results. Only a limited number of government programs use data and evidence to guide funding choices or conduct evaluations to understand the impact after programs are implemented, meaning we know startlingly little about which government programs are working and which are not. To begin tracking progress on this front, Results for America, an initiative of America Achieves, created a scorecard: The Investing In What Works Index. It highlights the extent to which federal departments are using evidence and evaluation when allocating scarce public resources. Looking specifically at the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, we judged federal agencies on a number of criteria, evaluating their success in using evidence to improve outcomes for young people, their families and communities, noting where congressional and/or departmental action is required to enable evidence-based investment.

There are some bright spots in the results. While the numbers show that many policies are awaiting action, some agencies have taken important first steps toward making good use of data and evaluation to invest in high-performing solutions, directing funding away from programs that aren't demonstrating a positive impact. Using data from the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor budgets from fiscal years 2012, 2013 and their requests for fiscal year 2014, our new scorecard highlights the growing trend of evidence-based funding so that we can urge agencies to increase their use of results and data in making decisions on how to spend limited resources.

Both the Department of Education and Labor scored well for creating special offices and dedicating senior staff to evaluate results. Similarly, both scored well for making user-friendly data available to the public through the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. In two categories, Education is ahead of the curve, having established a "What Works Clearinghouse" which reviews programs and compiles evidence of those that "worked"; and having introduced a set of draft evidence standards with the National Science Foundation in April of this year. Labor, however, is further along in setting aside one percent of agency funds for evaluations by including it in their latest budget request.

The Departments of Education and Labor certainly have work to do in other categories. Departmental and Congressional actions are required to allocate funds from formula and competitive grant programs based on demonstrated evidence of success.

There is tremendous potential upside from gathering data and making evidence-based funding decisions. Not only can taxpayer dollars go further during lean budget years, but investing in what works can also begin to restore the public's faith in government and in the notion that good government plays an important role in improving communities and individual lives.

President Obama has already taken major steps in this direction. His 2014 budget request takes significant steps in creating tools and policies that will help the Federal government create and use a stronger evidence-base to inform decisions, building on his own first term efforts, and those of President George W. Bush, who laid critical groundwork in pushing for better government performance during his Administration.

Just last month, President Obama took another step by issuing an executive order that sets a new standard for the government, dramatically increasing its sharing of data. This "Open Data" policy makes data freely available and much more useable for communities, entrepreneurs and those who are working every day to identify new ways to improve outcomes. Putting reams of data into the public domain could be transformative for non-profits and government agencies alike, and it also establishes an important role for government: facilitating evidence-based funding decisions across the country. With growing momentum for a system that rewards this process for decision making, this scorecard marks a baseline by which to judge future progress toward this goal.

We look forward to continuing to work with the Departments of Education and Labor as they increasingly prioritize evidence and evaluation when making budget, management, and policy decisions. We are also committed to holding other federal departments to these same evidence-based standards in the coming months. After all, numbers shouldn't be there just to help us keep score, they should help inform the policy choices we make, remind us of goals unmet and guide us in improving the lives of young people, their families and communities across the country.

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