The Problem With Evidence-Based Government

There's a big challenge that advocates need to recognize.
January 2017
Shelley Metzenbaum, former senior official at the federal Office of Management and Budget (FlickrCC/U.S. Department of Agriculture)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

The drive for evidence-based policymaking has moved from the world of wonks and analysts into the mainstream. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in government who opposes the idea, especially as it has now merged with an emphasis on big data and data analytics. There is even a federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

As a former government auditor, I certainly stand foursquare for the use of evidence in drawing conclusions about what works well and how to improve what doesn’t. But there is an important challenge that advocates of evidence-based policymaking need to recognize: the human factor.

In an excellent paper, Shelley Metzenbaum and Robert Shea, who  served as senior Office of Management and Budget officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, trace the history of modern efforts to improve federal management. They make it clear that a major impediment to evidence-based policymaking is that it’s never really embraced by staff members. Front-line managers, they write, too often view “measurement and evaluation as irritating burdens rather than helpful tools.”

John Buntin found similar reactions in state and local governments in his retrospective look at the reinventing government movement in September’s issue of Governing. He quoted Kristine LaLonde, Nashville’s former co-chief innovation officer, as saying of one such program, “The department heads I have the most respect for hated it the most.”

A major contributor to this reaction is the fact that in most organizations there is a wide gap between those who design and champion programs and those who must actually implement them. The culture of an organization is embedded in the ongoing conversations of the line staff. Those at the very top often have very little understanding of or empathy with that culture.

And there is the growing challenge of simply staffing government well. In the advisory board meetings this magazine convenes around the country, the topic of recruiting, retaining and rewarding good government employees is invariably a top concern. Public officials tell us over and over that their agencies are fighting a losing battle.

But getting effective workers on board is just one piece of the puzzle. Leaders need to have regular conversations with people at every level of their organizations and listen carefully not only to what is said but also to what is not said. We should be especially careful with the use of the word “accountability.” Mandating it from the top rarely works. Instead, we need to mold organizational culture in ways that increase what public management consultant and author Ken Miller calls “shoulder-to-shoulder accountability.”

Finally, leaders need to continually draw and highlight the line of sight between the work done by staff and the larger social impact of that work. That will help attract and retain the kind of people governments need, and it will strengthen the performance of the organization in ways that mere evidence and data will never do.