Why Every Mayor Should Consider Launching a Policy Lab

As D.C. is demonstrating, it's a way to use evidence and rigorous research to produce better outcomes.
November 30, 2017
David Yokum leading The Lab @ D.C.'s first public briefing on March 10. (The Lab @ D.C.)
By Andrew Feldman  |  Contributor
Host of the Gov Innovator podcast and former special adviser in the White House Office of Management and Budget
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

You might have heard recently about a large study of body-worn police cameras in Washington, D.C,. that shed new light on the cameras' effects. The findings -- that the cameras had little impact on police or civilian behavior -- were important, but there's a broader, equally valuable insight for mayors wanting to improve city services: The study was conducted by a group of scientists embedded within the mayor's office, called The Lab @ DC. We think every mayor should consider building a similar type of applied scientific team.

The Lab's mission is to embed the scientific method into the heart of city operations to provide decision-makers with high-quality evidence that they can use to achieve better outcomes for D.C . residents. It currently has 15 experts on the team, many with PhDs in fields such as economics, mathematics and sociology. It also works with a network of researchers at nearby universities who expand the Lab's analytical capabilities.

Mayor Muriel Bowser officially launched the Lab in July 2017, although it had been ramping up since 2016. Part of the Lab's value is in idea generation. When the city is dealing with a policy challenge, the team helps define the problem or opportunity and then draws on existing research and data analysis to suggest a useful approach. If that sounds academic, the topics it works on are very real. For example, the Lab used Chicago's approach of using data to help the city predict the location of rats and improve eradication efforts. The Lab also is testing whether signage on trash receptacles reduces litter, and it's planning to study whether a nurse advice line improves health outcomes and saves money on needless ambulance rides.

The Lab also adds value by building a learning culture. When the city rolls out a new policy, such as the body-worn police cameras, the Lab looks for opportunities to build in evaluation. That way city officials can determine whether the new policy actually achieves the hoped-for results. The Lab specializes in low-cost yet credible research. The body-worn camera study, for example, was both rigorous (using a randomized design, like a drug trial) and low-cost (using data already being collected).

A particular focus of the Lab's work has been on designing interventions that improve customer service at low cost. For example, it examined how to simplify and clarify city forms that people use to apply for benefits, services or permits. In doing this work, it used a unique approach, hosting a community design session to work on the forms with nearly 100 attendees on a Saturday -- a "formapalooza," as it was called. The Lab invited attendees back a few months later to see the finished versions.

So how can cities afford to expand their analytical capabilities, drawing on the example of The Lab @ DC? One option is to obtain a foundation grant, as the Lab did. That grant covers most of the staff salaries, allowing the team to operate as a proof of concept for a few years, working to demonstrate its value and hopefully justify an eventual city investment. Another option is to draw on existing talent within a city government, such as agency staff with strong research and analytical skills. A city can start with one or two people and empower them to build and use data and evidence to improve city services. In fact, The Lab @ DC started with two people and then expanded after the foundation grant.

A small team can use creative ways to build capacity for free, such as bringing in academic researchers for a semester using temporary assignment-of-personnel agreements, or who are on sabbatical and want to gain experience helping tackle real-world city challenges. Once a core team is in place, it can further expand its capacity by partnering with university-based researchers.

There are, of course, other good examples of researcher-practitioner partnerships, often called policy labs, that are helping governments move from wanting to use data and evidence to actually having the capacity to do that. Yet few of them are embedded within city government, ensuring a tight link between researchers' efforts and analytical tools -- data analysis, rigorous low-cost evaluation and rapid experimentation -- and the needs of city decision-makers. That's why The Lab @ DC is an initiative that every mayor should learn about and then ask themselves: How could our city build similar capacity?