The Perils of Evidence-Based Government

It’s a powerful tool, but sometimes it might really be better to reinvent the wheel.
by | January 4, 2012

Babak Armajani

Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.

Much has been written here—and just about everywhere else the subject of improving government performance is discussed—about the power of evidence-based analysis, and I agree that it holds much value for making public-policy and management decisions.

Yet I'm concerned that there are real dangers in depending on evidence-based approaches alone. So, in the interest of stimulating our thinking, I am going to try to make the case against over-reliance on benchmarking, best-practice approaches and so-called evidence-based decision making.

I have three issues for you to ponder, and three related questions that I hope will provoke a useful dialogue on this important subject.

Whither Innovation?

The first concern is the necessary tension between doing what has been proven and seeking a "better way." If everything we did were based on approaches that were proven elsewhere, how would there ever be innovation?

Feather O'Connor Houstoun and Robert J. O'Neill Jr. have written convincingly in this space about the lessons for government in the radical departure the Oakland A's visionary general manager, Billy Beane, took from past "best practices" (relying only on the instincts of scouts and using antiquated statistics to predict performance) to mold a winning baseball team. Wait, you say: There is a difference between past practice and evidence-based practice. I say, "True, but how do you tell the difference?" Someone must have said to Henry Ford: "The evidence shows that my horse and buggy has worked well for generations. That newfangled contraption of yours doesn't look reliable to me."

Inventors and innovators challenge the status quo; they don't look for the best version of the status quo.

Question: When is the right time to challenge basic assumptions, rather than asking what is working well elsewhere?

Pioneers and Settlers

That brings us to the second issue—pioneers vs. settlers. Futurist Joel Barker has made the distinction between those who explore uncharted waters ("pioneers") and those who wait until detailed maps are widely available ("settlers"). This dichotomy is all about risk and safety.

Pioneers are not the inventors—the people who come up with an idea. Rather, Barker argues, pioneers are the ones who take the risk to make practical application of an idea. By contrast, settlers wait until something has been proven. They want lots of numbers—proof. When the evidence is in, they are ready to adopt the idea. Settlers make decisions based on hard evidence.

Question: Is the need for pioneers in the public sector right now even greater than the need for settlers?

Sides of the Coin

One side of the coin is the reality of resistance to most change.

I spend my work life spreading the word about ideas that can help government produce better outcomes even as it has less and less money to spend. Not a week goes by that I'm not asked this question: "Who is successfully doing [whatever I'm talking about]?" Then, when I give them some "best-practice" examples, they immediately tell me why their city or county or state is fundamentally different.

Yes, there is provincialism and a "not invented here" mentality. But the issue underlying the question "Who has done this successfully?" is fundamentally about fear. It could more authentically be stated: "I'm concerned about our ability to pull this off. I need proof that it can be done. But don't offer, as proof, some other jurisdiction having done this, because I still worry whether we can do this."

The other side of that coin is the notion that, no matter how many other pertinent cases of success are out there, organizations derive great benefit from inventing things themselves. They own their work. And their thinking is transformed through the doing. This is often true even when the evidence says it is safe to copy—even in the face of that time honored aphorism: "Let's not reinvent the wheel."

Sometimes it really is best to reinvent the wheel. We see this in our children. No matter how much we want to share with them the life lessons we have learned, they usually must learn those lessons for themselves—often painfully.

Question: Are there circumstances when your organization is better off inventing its own solution rather than adapting a proven best practice?

What do you think? Let's get some dialogue going on these and other related questions. Use the comments section below.


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