In 1988, Congress funded an effort to help young children from disadvantaged families do better in school. A few years later, the federal government tested the program, called Even Start, to see whether it was working. Researchers found no proof that it was, so President George W. Bush proposed scrapping it.
The case of Even Start stands out because it is so rare. At a time when the federal budget is increasingly squeezed — and lawmakers are wrestling with tough choices on what to cut or to keep — the government does very, very little to find out which programs produce the best results for the money spent on them.
There are several reasons for that, most wrapped up in politics. There's no natural ideological constituency for program evaluations. Lawmakers who champion social programs often fear that attempts to measure them will be only thinly disguised excuses to kill the programs. Fiscal hawks don't often love the idea of spending more money on evaluations.
But if Washington ever hopes to provide the services voters say they want, at the tax rates voters say they're willing to pay, economists say the government will need to ramp up its efforts to figure out which programs work and which ones don't, and shift resources accordingly.
"It's pretty much a blanket statement that we throw money at lots of things and never really study what we're getting for that money, and that's a shame," said Peter Orszag, who was President Obama's first budget director.
That's especially bad at a time when Washington is debating tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit, said Jeffrey Liebman, a Harvard economist and also a former Obama budget official. "It's imperative to be able to show that the things [voters'] tax dollars are being spent on work, and that we're trying to improve performance and do it in a data-driven way," Liebman said. "That's just good stewardship."
A small but growing group of researchers and lawmakers is pushing to inject more measurement into the budget debate, Orszag and Liebman among them. On Wednesday, Liebman will unveil a paper at a conference sponsored by the Hamilton Project, an economics-focused program at the Brookings Institution, and Results for America, a relatively new effort that advocates for more evidence-based funding decisions in government; in it, he will call for a major increase in government efforts to improve the value of its spending programs.
Liebman's most specific proposal would change the flow of federal money to state and local governments. He would require that 1 percent of such grants be set aside for programs whose effectiveness has been proven through randomized or other rigorous research methods. Over time, the requirement would rise to 5 percent.
A companion paper, by economists Louis Jacobson of New Horizons Economic Research and Robert J. LaLonde of the University of Chicago, calls for a new competitive grant program to help states get more bang for their buck in one of the most critical challenges of the economy right now: worker training.
Drawing on a deep pool of state data, Jacobson and LaLonde show that lower-skilled Americans often make poor choices, from an economic standpoint, when they seek to improve themselves. Far too many people, particularly those who struggled in high school, pursue community college programs they can't finish — or that won't help them land a better-paying job. Far too few pursue vocational programs, such as a nurse's assistant certification, that are relatively quick to complete and tend to lead to more lucrative careers.
Jacobson and LaLonde propose giving states incentives to develop programs that help students understand which training choices, for them, will likely yield the most economic benefits. "The people we're talking about are not used to using data to solve life's problems," Jacobson said. Government needs "to package the information in a way people can use it."
Obama has taken a few steps toward implementing measures that seek to figure out which programs work best and shift spending on them accordingly. His administration has begun carrying out an effort, launched under Bush, to weed out low-performing Head Start preschool providers. More controversially, Obama's signature health-care law includes attempts to study which procedures produce the best, cheapest care, in the hope of controlling explosive growth in government health spending.
The budget Obama released last week includes a few new evidence-based efforts, including money to evaluate education and worker-training programs. Michele Jolin, the head of Results for America, calls those measures "the kind of really important steps that need to be taken to get better results and to actually begin to solve problems facing young people and their families."
Others are skeptical that spending more on metrics will produce better results — in part because it's hard to get policymakers to agree on what results they're after.
"The whole idea of measuring government's performance is at best challenging, and it's not clear that you can do this without considerable bias in the results you're going to get," said Joe Antos, a health-care and retirement policy scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "The programs that really could use some investigation to see if the government could do a better job are typically ones that are complicated, and there are multiple objectives."
Even when investigations reach firm conclusions, lawmakers don't always follow them. Take Even Start, which at its height cost taxpayers more than $200 million a year. At least two major studies, spread over a decade, found that children in the program didn't fare meaningfully better at reading than similar children not served by the program.
Bush tried and failed for three years to eliminate it. Then Obama took up the mantle. Finally, funding was killed by a continuing resolution he signed in 2011.
Even then, the change was resisted by the National Coalition for Literacy and the National Council of La Raza; thousands of people signed a petition protesting the move.