UC- Berkeley Memorial Glade (Image By Gku (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons)

California Policy Lab (CPL)

CPL is a university-government partnership that aims to help cities, counties and the State of California improve public programs through empirical research, program evaluations and technical assistance provided by UCLA and UC Berkeley to the end of improving the lives of Californians. CPL is very young and is still developing its core model of supporting government with data analytic services.

The GovLab
Published in
6 min readDec 12, 2017


Location: Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA


Set up in 2017 to create data-driven, scientific evidence and insights to help governments at all levels in the state solve urgent public problems, the California Policy Lab provides a research infrastructure; including faculty, government policy experts, full time research support staff, and administrative data; to help bridge the gap between policy makers and the research community. CPL uses diverse data science and research methods to achieve the larger goal of improving the lives of Californians. To that end, CPL aims to generate scientific evidence to drive evidence-based policy making by leveraging both the potential of administrative data as well as the talent and experience of researchers and faculty in the state’s university system. This will hopefully unlock evaluation methods previously unusable by many jurisdictions due to data silos or lack of capacity or expertise. .

“Often the people most interested in research, do not have the relevant data and the people charged with stewarding the data do not have the resources to pursue research.” — Evan White, Executive Director at CPL-Berkeley

CPL aims to bring smart, dedicated researchers from Berkeley and the University of California system to help government agencies, big and small, achieve their goals involving evidence-based policy making in general and administrative data use in particular. Although only only recently founded, their aspiration is to facilitate greater use of these data, CPL can, as other policy labs, advance the field of impact evaluation and facilitate increased efficiency and data science understanding within government in order to improve social programs.

CPL is capable of hosting and linking administrative data from multiple sources across jurisdictions and agencies on their secure and confidential data infrastructure.

“Often the people most interested in research, do not have the relevant data,” Evan White, executive director at CPL-Berkeley said, “and the people charged with stewarding the data do not have the resources to pursue research.” CPL plays a crucial role in bridging the talent gap in government and improving the ease of access to data for researchers. “The aim is to improve the lives of Californians. Data are only the means to reaching that end,” he said¹.

Due to the complexities involved in finding, accessing and using administrative data, including the creation of data sharing agreements, the costs involved in maintaining secure databases and so on, individual university researchers find it difficult to meaningfully use administrative data both for their own work as well as to help government. Using its existing relationships to serve as a go-between for government agencies and academia as well as providing the resources and capacity for the data infrastructure, CPL helps to lower the barriers to entry, thus facilitating the ability of academic researchers to work with administrative data ethically and securely. At least for now, it has no plans to serve the philanthropic and or nonprofit sectors, unless they are partnering with or serving public agencies.

Sector: Economic, social service, housing, homelessness, education and criminal justice systems.

Target Audience: Local, regional, and state governments and government agencies within California. CPL aims to work with different parts of government research on the questions that are most pertinent to their clients. CPL works in a broad array of social policy, including criminal justice, education, social safety net, labor, and homeless and other high-needs populations.

Services offered: CPL offers Program evaluation, predictive modeling, technical assistance, policy research to understand different populations and designing targeted interventions. Recently, the Lab released a report which examined the impact of including letters of recommendation as part of a candidate’s application to University of California, Berkeley. The report found that including letters of recommendation had a positive impact on the enrollment of underrepresented students. The Lab also recently released an evaluation of a program to keep contraband from being smuggled inside prisons and found that the prisons receiving the most intensive interventions saw declines in failed drug tests among inmates.

Data Sources: Administrative data from partner government agencies.

Who Houses the Data: Data are typically housed and analyzed by CPL in their secure data hub. Occasionally the government agency that collects the data houses the data.

Addressing Data Quality Issues: CPL primarily analyzes administrative data for research purposes, and makes sure that such data is of sufficient quality and reliability before analysis. CPL also helps partners to set up data systems that allow for more rigorous and complex analysis. In this line of work, CPL will work with the administrative data holders to create new integrated database systems in linkable formats that allow more advanced querying and more sophisticated analysis. CPL also helps build capacity as it works with these governments, offering guidance and support to help spread expertise to their partners.

Addressing Data Governance and Oversight Mechanisms: Most of the administrative data CPL uses or gets access to is personally identifiable. To mitigate the risk of compromising individuals’ information, CPL employs a combination of oversight mechanisms and technical access restrictions. It enters into Data Sharing Agreements (DSAs) with its partner government agencies to get access to the administrative data and creates a new scopes of work for each new project that relates to a given dataset, which specifies which faculty affiliates and staff have access to this data. In other words, even though the DSAs allow data to live on CPL’s servers, not everyone at the Lab can access all the data². CPL’s secure servers also store de-identified data and have the ability to store data from multiple agencies merged to allow major longitudinal analysis.

Analytical talent: UC Berkeley and UCLA faculty and researchers whose research interests overlap with the projects government agencies would like to carry out.

Methodology: The key for CPL is that there is no single approach that can fit all their partners’ needs; therefore they employ a wide range of activities, including data visualization, machine learning, mapping, predictive analytics, propensity score matching, regression discontinuity designs, and randomized controlled trials.

Sample Project: In a recent study the lab performed an evaluation of California’s Enhanced Drug and Contraband Interdiction Program (EDCIP) and found that the most intensive version of the program had led to a 23% decline in random drug test failure rates but at the same time showed a notable increase in inmate misconduct driven by drug-related rule violations. The findings led to California governor Jerry Brown scrapping the $15 million dollar EDCI Program in favour of an increased number of sniffer dogs to sniff out drugs in prisons.

Disseminating Findings: Publication of reports or other documents varies based on the project since not all the projects CPL undertakes lend themselves to publication, but a majority of their reports and findings will be published online. Recently, for example, the lab published a study which found that including a letter of recommendation as part of an application improved the enrollment of of underrepresented applicants at the University of California, Berkeley.

Funding resources: CPL was granted approximately $2 million in seed funding from the Arnold Foundation and will continue to seek philanthropic support for its work. Over the long-term, CPL also hopes to receive funding from the university, the state of California, and from private donors.

Link to website: https://www.capolicylab.org

Contact details: evanbwhite@berkeley.edu and janey@cpl.ucla.edu.

We’d like to thank Evan White, Executive Director, California Policy Lab- Berkeley and Janey Rountree, Executive Director, CPL- UCLA for their assistance.



The GovLab
Data Labs

The Governance Lab improving people’s lives by changing how we govern. http://www.thegovlab.org @thegovlab #opendata #peopleledinnovation #datacollab