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The Best Way to Build a Culture of Evidence-Based Government

Successful efforts to bring the use of data and research into decision-making are both top-down and bottom-up.

Room full of boxes.
Here's one of the toughest nuts to crack for any results-focused public leader: How do you strengthen and sustain a culture of evidence-based decision-making? How, in other words, do you reject the status quo in much of government, where decisions are too often made based on hunches, intuition and inertia ("That's how we've always done it") and instead use data and research to inform what works?

Useful insights into that question come from agencies and jurisdictions we've seen firsthand that have taken important steps toward building a culture of evidence-based decision-making. They employ a two-pronged approach: The first is bottom-up, where program staff and evidence experts work together to find ways to use existing research and generate new evidence. The second is top-down, involving not only encouragement from leadership but also requirements to use evidence.

Ideally, the two prongs are simultaneous, each helping to reinforce the other. But sometimes organizations start with one prong and then add the second -- say, with leadership underscoring the importance of using evidence, followed by staff efforts to help bring that vision to reality. As momentum builds around the use of evidence, leadership might take further steps, such as adding evidence requirements for the budget process.

A good example of the two-pronged approach comes from the District of Columbia. Last year, Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration launched a scientific team called The Lab @ DC, which one of us (David Yokum) led until this September. Despite being located in the mayor's office, the Lab is largely a bottom-up effort, with Lab staff working closely with department officials to build trust and execute projects using field experimentation, machine learning and other approaches. The emphasis is on partnership, since departments are not mandated to work with the Lab but bring substantial expertise to the table. One result of these efforts was the nation's largest study to date of police use of body-worn cameras, carried out last year by the police department in conjunction with the Lab.

The mayor's office has complemented the Lab's bottom-up approach with top-down actions. Those have included messaging from Mayor Bowser and City Administrator Rashad M. Young about the value of evidence and the importance of the Lab. The city also recently adjusted its budget-submission form, requiring departments with budget-increase requests to describe the evidence base of any program for which more funding is sought and how the city will know whether the program is successful. Lab staff provide help to budget staff in answering the questions. The idea is not to block funding increases in programs but to ensure that evaluation efforts are in place so that later there will be solid evidence to inform decision-making.

A second example comes from the federal level, at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2014, a group of evidence- and budget-related staff formed an Evidence Planning Group. The group works with the department's competitive grant programs, prior to the budget process, to help those programs integrate evidence by, for example, adding competitive preference points for applicants who demonstrate that their proposed activities are backed by credible research. The Evidence Planning Group's bottom-up approach is non-threatening and underscores that other programs are achieving better results by using evidence strategies. And because the group is comprised primarily of civil servants, the know-how and commitment to evidence has a better chance of continuing across administrations.

Top-down efforts at the Department of Education have been important too. In the Obama administration, for example, several senior political leaders, including Deputy Secretaries Jim Shelton and John King (who went on to become secretary) were vocal in their support for the use of evidence. King held a weekly evidence-team meeting with staff from across the department to discuss how he could help advance the agenda and to ensure that department efforts were coordinated.

Why is a two-pronged strategy around evidence-based decision-making so useful? One reason is that in most jurisdictions and agencies there are civil servants who want to advance the use of data, evaluation and experimentation but may not feel empowered to do so. Clear and consistent top-down signals -- through messaging, requirements or both -- ensure that those civil servants know that evidence-based decision-making is not only accepted but encouraged.

But if there is only a top-down approach, the use of evidence risks becoming a mere compliance exercise, where offices will check the box but not necessarily embrace the value of data and research. Peer-to-peer, bottom-up efforts underscore that evidence strategies have been useful for helping public officials achieve their missions and get the most bang for the buck. Peers can also make the case that building and using evidence is not only desirable but also feasible, even within the normal constraints of government. Peers are a powerful tool in the art of persuasion.

Founder and principal consultant at the Center for Results-Focused Leadership
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