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Evidence-based Public Policy?

I received a number of inquiries from an earlier post about what I meant by “evidence-based public policy?”

The fact that this phrase engendered such bewilderment – especially among readers of a social policy blog — is evidence that we have a huge disconnect between the worlds of policy research, evaluation, and actual policymaking.

A Very Brief History

Although the pursuit of evidence-based policy can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans – through the enlightenment – through the operations research innovations of World Wars I&II – the true modern birth occurred in the middle 1960s.

Modern systems analysts and applied economists appeared in the Pentagon as Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids,” implemented the Planning Programming Budgeting System (PPBS) in the Department of Defense, and then spread planning and evaluation capabilities through other federal agencies. Planning, evaluation, and analysis was institutionalized in federal agencies with the creation of departments such as the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) in HEW; the Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Research (ASPER) in Labor; and the creation of a host of other departments. Copies of these departments were also established in state governments, counties, and cities. These departments and these planning and evaluation capabilities exist to this day.

The influence of PPBS on the apparatus of government was enormous, and it spawned the use of analytic tools such as cost benefit analysis, microsimulation modeling, decision analysis, and game theory. In the background was the image of RAND corporation capabilities producing solutions to vexing social problems: optimizing, producing measurable outcomes, and efficiently deploying resources. Indeed, in a famous policy experiment, RAND set up a New York office that produced analytic solutions to problems like the optimal siting and deployment of fire boxes and stations to improve response times and reduce deaths from fires.

This ferment of the 1960s also produced think tanks, public policy graduate programs, and a host of advocacy/influence groups that brought an evidence-based approach to their work. Organizations such as the Urban Institute, Abt Associates, Mathematica, were all formed with the ideal of applying the best research and tools to implementing and evaluating public policy. Graduate Schools such as the Kennedy School and Berkeley imagined producing cadres of policy analysts and leaders who would have the “right stuff” to reform public policy, and to produce “good public policy,” meaning sound proposals based on evidence and good reasons.

Aaron Wildavsky, the founding dean of the Berkeley Graduate School of Public Policy reflected on the birth of public policy schools in the middle 1960s. He called it the period of “macho-macro analysis ….. the belief that large national problems, from defense to welfare, are susceptible to solutions through applications of economic analysis …. rooted in the intersection between economics, statistics, computing, and the defense ‘think tanks’ of the early 1960s.”

As has been well-documented, the promise of the early vision of systems analysis, economic analysis, simulation modeling, and rigorous program evaluation and policy research gave way to skepticism, resistance, eventually full-out backlash. Henry Aaron’s great book, Politics and the Professors, described how the artificially high expectations of the Great Society led to a kind of backlash against the academic/rational/empirical enterprise of poverty research of the 1960s and 70s.[i]

I was at the Kennedy School and was socialized into this field of policy analysis in the late 1970s under the mentorship of Laurence Lynn, one of the original McNamara analysts, one of the first Assistant Secretaries for Planning and Evaluation at HEW (Assistant Secretaries in analogous posts in other federal departments), and a legendary pioneer in the fields of public policy and public management.

It was an idealistic period, a calling. Data, planning, economic analysis, modeling, forecasting, and evaluation, were the coins of the realm. Policy analysis was widely regarded to be the true ticket to the creation of good public policy. Alice Rivlin published Systematic Thinking for Social Action in 1971, which was both a clarion call for a “quiet revolution in government” as well as a roadmap for analysis, resource allocation, and evaluation in social policy.

Faculty, students, and government analysts at the time genuinely believed that producing good analysis would lead to the creation of sound and progressive public policy, and ultimately to reform. There was also a notion that policy analysis and evidence would lead to big, not small reform ideas in many different realms of public policy. This was especially true when the Nixon and Carter administrations were considering negative income taxes (guaranteed minimum incomes), universal health coverage (via HMOs), national urban policy and other big ticket public policy. It is hard to convey now how exciting and optimistic this period was for policy analysts.

Fast Forward to 2016

There have been many critiques, backlashes, and recriminations to this idealistic notion of rational, fact-based, reasoned public policy analysis since the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The presidential campaign has produced outright cynicism about the value and role of facts in public policy.

What is probably most surprising, given the bumps, bruises, and reversals of the last thirty years, is how resilient and robust the basic ideas and ideals of evidence based policy still are in 2016. Despite formal efforts to dismantle data and analytic capabilities in many federal departments, despite the lack of real resources for planning, evaluation, and analysis; despite the caricatures of the millennials as self-absorbed and individualistic; despite the public cynicism about our policy process as being driven by fact-free politics; evidence-based policy is actually alive, if not well, and there are significant signs of rebirth. You need to know where to look, because it is not evident on cable television.

There ferment and interest in the potential of evidence based policy approaches in many sectors, academic, government, foundations, and journalism. Despite the overwhelming cynicism in the country about the state of our policymaking – its politics, its disinterest in facts and good arguments, the influence of money, etc. – there is a surprising amount of both grass-roots and institutional effort to bring evidence to bear on public decisions and public policy.

The Federal Government

Without a great deal of fanfare, the Obama administration has made evidence-based policymaking a hallmark of its program review and budgetary process. Ron Haskins and Jon Baron have argued that “[t]he Obama Administration has created the most expansive opportunity for rigorous evidence to influence social policy in the history of the US government. No president or budget director for a president has ever been so intent on using evidence to shape decisions about the funding of social programs as President Obama and former Budget Director Orszag. The Obama plan to create evidence-based social policy initiatives turns the normal relationship between policy decision making and use of social science evidence on its head. Instead of evidence being on the outside of the decision making process trying to get in, Obama brings evidence inside from the beginning.”[1] This case and recent history for government policy based on evidence and analysis is extensively documented in Moneyball for Government and Show Me the Evidence.[2]

A specific example of evidence-based policymaking can be found in the federal funding requirements for home visiting programs. Federal funding built on a systematic review of models and literature, and grantees were required to tie their proposals to needs assessment and known effective home visiting models.


A number of major foundations – Arnold, Pew, MacArthur, and others – have been investing in capacity building and implementation of evidence-based policy approaches.

For example, Pew and MacArthur now support the Evidence Based Policymaking Collaborative, an outgrowth of an earlier initiative called Results First.

Results First is credited with bringing cost benefit analysis to a number of states, creating uptake of evidence based programs, and creating media awareness of evidence-based public policy.

The Evidence-Based Policymaking Collaborative brings together leaders from think tanks, foundations, and government to promote the application of tools and findings from policy research. The Collaborative promotes four principles for advancing evidence-based policy making:

  • Build and compile rigorous evidence about what works, including costs and benefits.
  • Monitor program delivery and use impact evaluation to measure program effectiveness.
  • Use rigorous evidence to improve programs, scale what works, and redirect funds away from consistently ineffective programs
  • Encourage innovation and test new approaches.

Longer term, the Collaborative envisions managing a clearinghouse of rigorously vetted programs and interventions to be adopted in public policy.


Despite the pounding that traditional journalism has taken in public opinion and social media, there is a significant journalistic enterprise that is seeking out and communicating stories of effective and evidence-based policy.

A signature example is the work of the Solutions Journalism Network, the movement and network created by David Bornstein, Tina Rosenberg, and Courtney Martin, to bring evidence-based reporting about effective interventions and social policies into the public consciousness.

A regular diet of these solutions can be also found at Fixes at The New York Times. The concept is to tilt against happy-talk journalism and bring hard-headed, rigorous accounts of models and interventions that have the prospect of replication and impact.

Looking ahead

Surprisingly, outside of the national angst and preoccupation with our presidential campaign, there is much positive to report about the state of evidence-based public policy.

Much of the wherewithal to produce legislation and executive decisions is moving apace. Universities, think tanks, foundations, and advocacy groups are all produce vast quantities of policy research and policy analysts, despite all rational reasons why not. Although the Congress and budget process have lost all contact with evidence and policy analysis, the infrastructure in the executive agencies is in many places strong. Morale, professional attractiveness, and rewards for this work in the agencies is another matter.

Still, there are major clogs in the machinery of evidence-based policy. There is still preciously little capacity to systematically review, disseminate, and implement evidence-based policy approaches. The efforts of the Coalition, the Administration for Children and Families, and others are laudable, but they are tiny in the overall scheme of policy challenges and possible solutions.

Just as my informal conversations have suggested, there is also precious little communication and understanding of the possibilities and reservoir of evidence-based policies. This is why the work of the Solutions Journalism Network is in its own way so inspiring. Not only are these journalists trying to change the sometimes fatalistic and cynical public view about the possibilities of social policy, they are also trying to bring a rigorous framework for disseminating evidence-based alternatives.

The ace-in-the-hole for this movement towards evidence-based public policy is the continuing flow of outstanding, motivated, and idealistic young people who believe in the value of data, facts, evidence, and evaluation. For 32 year  I have witnessed first-hand this flow of remarkable graduate students in social work, public health, and public policy, and heard their motivations to have careers that will positively influence evidence-based policy. Despite all of the political noise at the moment, this talent and motivation is the future of evidence-based public policy.

[1] Ron Haskins and Jon Baron, The Obama Administration’s Evidence-based Social Policy Initiatives, Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution,

[2] Ron Haskins and Michael Gerson, Show Me the Evidence: Obama’s Fight for Rigor and Results in Social Policy (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2014); and Jim Nussle and Peter Orsag, eds., Moneyball for Government, 2nd edition, (New York: Disruption Books, 2015).

[i] Henry Aaron, Politics and the Professors: The Great Society in Perspective (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1978).

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Great blog you haave


    January 31, 2023

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