Need Help Getting More Bang for Taxpayers' Buck?

Many government policies have no evidence of success before or after they're implemented. A new competition seeks to change that.
by | June 16, 2016
There are evidence-based ways to help people quit smoking. But they aren't always employed. (Shutterstock)

All government programs are not created equal.

That was clear in California several years ago when the state started pushing people on welfare to participate in programs designed to help them get and keep jobs. The details of the programs were left up to the counties. While some made big gains in employment and government savings, others didn’t seem to make any meaningful change.

Riverside County, for example, made participation mandatory and focused on getting people into the workforce quickly, increasing the earnings of single-parent welfare recipients by 55 percent over two years. Los Angeles County, on the other hand, emphasized education and training over job placement, which led to a mere 4 percent increase in participants' income. But L.A. County eventually changed its program to model Riverside’s and employed twice as many people in two years than it had in the previous six.

This convinced people at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), which aims to spread evidence-based solutions to persistent problems, that such programs can be reproduced on a larger scale. That's why they're launching “Moving the Needle,” a competition for governments looking to implement evidence-based ideas.

“It's not that common to find programs that produce this kind of impact,” said Jon Baron, vice president of evidence-based policy at LJAF.

LJAF is not alone in worrying that too many government resources have been wasted on programs and policies that lack proof of success. More and more, researchers are pointing out that while brand-new solutions to age-old problems might generate excitement, they don't always work. As the pressure to make wise fiscal decisions intensifies, policymakers have been increasingly trying to identify measures that make the most of taxpayer dollars. This competition points to some of the ideas they may be looking for.

Applicants can choose from a list of 13 evidence-based programs or propose their own. The existing programs touch on ways to drastically shorten the process for college students applying for financial aid; connect older, less tech-savvy people to local job opportunities and help people quit smoking.

Each of the five winners will receive, on average, $1 million to 1.5 million for technical assistance and quality control, which translates to staff training on protocols and procedures as well as data collection. But grantees are required to cover the cost for the actual implementation, which include salaries for involved staff members.

The winning grantees must also agree to a thorough evaluation of the program by a third party.

“I think it is a great idea to support quality implementation of programs,” said Sharon Mihalic, director of Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, which reviews and ranks evidence-based programs, in an email. “Without this type of support, programs often fail.”

Depending on the program, LJAF will remain involved with the grantees for a number of years to evaluate their impacts. This could range from two to eight years, if they pick the pre-approved programs, or even more.

That means there may be a change in leadership during the duration of the program. But the hope is that the programs -- and their positive outcomes -- will defend themselves.

“It's not foolproof,” said Baron, “but the evidence can help ensure longevity of the program even as administrations change.”

Amber Tong | Intern