“Let’s Have a Smart Discussion About Evidence”

By Michele Jolin

Evidence had a moment in the spotlight last week with the release of President Trump’s first budget.

Image credit: Meals on Wheels America

The Trump Administration drew headlines by suggesting that Meals on Wheels doesn’t work, criticizing the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program for “not showing any results,” and questioning whether “Sesame Street” was worth the taxpayer investment of a coal miner or a single mom from Detroit.

Supporters of these programs fired back with evidence of their own — studies showing that home-delivered meals improve seniors’ health and quality of life, and research demonstrating that Elmo and Big Bird increase school readiness, especially among kids living in economically disadvantaged areas.

At Results for America — which was founded to help policymakers harness the power of evidence and data to solve the world’s greatest challenges — we welcome a robust and honest conversation about how we focus public investments to truly deliver results. But the tone of this week’s discussion was disheartening.

Instead of a thoughtful and fact-based debate on the merits of each program, evidence was cited to fit pre-conceived views and ideologically-driven budget choices and ignored when it challenged those assumptions. Missing from the discussion entirely was the opportunity government has to drive real progress on our nation’s great problems and that better, stronger communities are within our reach if governments make choices based on what works.

Leaders of good faith in both parties — including over 140 Moneyball for Government All-Stars — have approached the challenge of using evidence and data in a better, more productive way designed to make government more efficient, save taxpayer dollars and create better outcomes for children, families and our country. When we launched our “Moneyball for Government” book and campaign, we were amazed at the breadth of bipartisan support for these ideas — from senior officials in the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama White Houses to top advisors to Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton to leading Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Nearly five years later, our coalition has grown to include more than 420 bipartisan federal, state and local leaders who are all committed to these goals.

This bipartisan consensus has been growing over the last decade and has translated into specific improvements: President George W. Bush increased the amount of evidence and data used in budget decisions and created the What Works Clearinghouse at the Department of Education. President Barack Obama built on this foundation, investing in evaluations, creating the Social Innovation Fund and i3 and preferencing evidence-based solutions over those that could not show impact. Given that evidence-based policymaking is one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans agree, it is critical not to weaponize the use of evidence and to ensure the focus remains on both impact and efficiency — not one or the other.

In some cases, evidence and data will justify cutting or eliminating funds from current programs. But that is not the only reason that we collect it. We build the evidence so we know what works, and then we use that information to improve underperforming programs, scale successful ones, and phase out those that are chronically ineffective. Armed with data, government is empowered to direct and repurpose funds based on measurable outcomes — not guesses.

The good news is that Democrats and Republicans across the country are doing just that: building evidence, investing based on that evidence and redirecting public dollars where necessary. Next week, more than 350 mayors, other local leaders and experts will gather in New York City at Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities Summit to share ideas for how best to gather evidence and use it to make life better for the people they serve.

These leaders hail from deeply red states and progressive strongholds, but they know that when it comes to addressing their cities’ most urgent challenges — homelessness, violent crime, infrastructure/economic development — their residents don’t want partisanship. They want what works.

At the federal level, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed Congress with strong bipartisan support and signed by President Obama in 2015, includes important provisions that encourage state and local education officials to pursue evidence-based actions and continuously focus on improving student outcomes.

Nearly 200 leaders and bipartisan organizations recently sent a letter urging Congress to protect these “What Works” investments. If we are going to bring a “What Works” culture to Washington, we need more investment in the bold initiatives they support, like the Social Innovation Fund — not less.

When evidence is gathered carefully, analyzed objectively and used to make smart choices, it can yield stunning results. In New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city launched a data-driven war on poverty that tested different approaches and measured the outcomes. After three years, the city phased out initiatives that weren’t working, while expanding investments in programs that kept residents out of poverty. Over the last decade, during an era of rising income inequality, New York City has defied national trends with a decline in its poverty rate.

Harlem Children’s Zone Founder Geoffrey Canada co-chaired New York City’s Commission on Economic Opportunity, which pursued a data-driven approach to poverty. Image credit: Harlem Children’s Zone.

This is the power of evidence-based decision-making, and it is the future of policymaking. Within 10 years, we believe leaders won’t be making big policy and budget decisions based on hunches or good intentions — they will be making them based on data and evidence.

We all recognize that we are in a fiercely partisan moment where it is difficult to find common ground. Many of us seek out media that reinforce rather than challenge our political views, and research suggests we even choose which facts to believe based on our party affiliation. But there is a way out of this rabbit hole.

By taking steps to collect evidence, by committing to listen fairly to the results and act on them, we can make better use of scarce resources. We can make government more effective and accountable, and we can begin to restore public trust in the federal government’s ability to solve big problems.

Now that’s a conversation worth having. We urge Congress and the President to take these ideas into account so that our budget delivers better value and better results to the American people.

Michele Jolin is the CEO and Co-Founder of Results for America.