What do you consider when you’re taking a decision? Do you weigh up the pros and cons? Do you see what others have done? Do you just trust your instinct? Maybe it’s all of the above.
What happens in government, though? On a daily or even hourly basis, politicians and public servants alike have to take decisions that potentially affect the lives of millions of people. How do they go about making a wise choice, one based on the latest metrics and evidence?
For the past five years, US policymakers have been able to call upon the myriad services of Results for America (RFA) to help them in such a quest. Set up by two former senior White House staffers, Michele Jolin and David Medina, it has quickly established itself as a bipartisan fixture on the Washington and national scene. Its mission is to encourage decision-makers at all levels of government to harness the power of evidence and data to solve our world’s greatest challenges.
Sounds good, right? It is – but neither Jolin nor Medina are resting on any laurels. They both recognise that there is much more to do. “We started RFA, focusing first on the federal level and then quickly moved to the local level as well,” recalls Jolin.
“Fundamentally, we believe that this is about behaviour change on the part of government decision-makers. Whenever a policymaker or decision-maker has to make a choice, he or she should look to the evidence and data about what works, as well as continually consider whether the funding is making a difference as intended. We know that there will be other factors – politics will always play a role, we’re not naïve about that – but we want to make evidence matter more.”
Origins and outputs
Jolin and Medina must like working together. They share a common history of working in political campaigns, in agencies, in the Senate and in the White House – Jolin designed and launched the first Social Innovation Fund, and Medina served as deputy chief of staff to the then first lady, Michelle Obama. Upon leaving the Obama administration, they both felt they had some unfinished business to attend to.
“We both recognised that the problems we went into government and politics to address still seemed so far from getting solved,” says Jolin. “Government funding wasn’t taking into account all that we know about what works, from social entrepreneurs, non-profits and researchers. At the same time, when you’re in government you just don’t have enough of a sense of what is working – there weren’t the tools to better understand the impact of what we wanted to do.”
RFA, however, is starting to change that. The organisation has quickly grown in size and scale, and now includes federal policy work, a global initiative called Results for All, two fellowship programmes to train non-profit leaders and local government leaders, an Evidence in Education Lab, and the What Works Cities initiative. This last is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and is building the capacity of nearly 100 midsized US cities to use data and evidence more effectively. It has also spawned the What Works Media Project, which produces short films about data-driven solutions.
Medina says that the organisation is helping promote evidence-based policymaking in three important ways. “One that makes us unique is that we have developed these standards of excellence which identify how a level of government should be working or thinking about using data and evidence in decision-making,” he says. “For example, we just released our 2017 federal index, which identifies the ten systems that need to be in place in every federal agency to invest in what works.”
“The second part is working with policymakers to help them meet standards of excellence. So with What Works Cities, we are helping cities develop rigorous performance management systems and rigorous data systems, which provide a North Star for policymakers on how to use evidence and data to improve outcomes. And thirdly, and this also makes us unique, we champion the leaders and the government agencies who are actually doing this work – helping them connect with others who aren’t there yet and also keeping them motivated.”
Now this is all well and good, but it seems pertinent to ask why policymakers aren’t using evidence and data in the first place? Isn’t this just common sense?
“We are still understanding this ourselves,” concedes Jolin. “But our hypothesis is that policymakers need to be inspired and motivated to take this new approach, both by understanding that they will get better, faster impact on a problem and, ultimately, they could be rewarded or punished at the next election if they don’t do more of what works. But there is also the issue of providing them with the capacity, skills and a picture of where they need to go – that’s why we create the standards of excellence, so they know what good looks like.”
And what about the electoral cycle – does the relentless grind of campaigning and fundraising make it hard to focus on the actual machinery of policymaking? In response, Medina says that it comes down to the wider infrastructure which needs to be in place, regardless of the revolving door of elections.
“You won’t know what works unless you have the people on your staff who know how to conduct and analyse evaluations, or if you don’t invest enough resources in those evaluations or use those results when allocating dollars,” he points out. “So it’s not just a one-off decision that’s either being made with or without evidence or data – it is really about creating the ecosystem that moves people in that direction when they are making any decision.”
On the right track
Both Jolin and Medina are at pains to stress that not only is RFA “aggressively” bipartisan, but that there are examples of both parties successfully uniting to implement evidence-based initiatives – such as the recent rewriting of the K-12 education federal law. “We estimate that more than $2 billion can be shifted towards more evidence-based solutions every year because of the new law,” says Medina. “This bipartisan joint effort is now spilling over into other areas. We now have a toolkit that shows nine ways to help federal legislation be more evidence-based, and this can be plugged into any bill.”
And earlier this year, RFA helped support the work of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, the legislation for which was introduced by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray. Medina testified before the commission, and RFA helped organise letters signed by more than 120 groups and individuals supporting the commission’s bipartisan recommendations and the bipartisan legislation to enact many of its key recommendations. RFA praised the commission’s work as a “big step forward” for evidence-based policymaking.
“Speaker Ryan and Senator Murray both saw how data and evidence is at the crux of how you make government more effective and efficient,” observes Medina. “We particularly valued the call for chief evaluation officers at every federal agency, as well as the recommendation for every federal agency to have a learning and research agenda to figure out what they don’t know and where their research dollars should be invested. And their idea that the federal government should invest one percent of programme dollars in evaluations is also one of our key policy recommendations.”
Jolin goes on to say that these examples highlight the power of the federal government to create a huge impact. Although much has been made of the strides made by cities, she says that the K-12 education example in particular shows what is possible. “The sheer size of these federal investments – in the billions and trillions of dollars – is something we can’t ignore,” she points out. “So when it comes to working with cities and working with the federal government, it can’t be an either/or. We have to do both.”
As for the future, the organisation intends to branch out from federal and local level into the state level, and to expand its international work. “This is because you can’t solve a problem by going at it at one level of government – you have to work at it across all levels, and I think we are uniquely situated to do that effectively,” concludes Medina.
Jolin is particularly inspired by the potential of the global work. Results for All published a global landscape review this summer – the culmination of 18 months of research and country visits – which highlighted more than 100 strategies and mechanisms deployed by governments across the globe to advance the use of data and evidence in policymaking.
“Problems don’t get solved just once and for all time,” she says. “It’s a constant process of learning and improving and recalculating. And so, internationally, we are exploring the potential of a global evidence network or a platform of sorts that could bring different countries together to learn and exchange, to jointly develop tools, and so on. It’s exciting.”
It certainly is.
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