Federal Agencies Directed To Improve Use of Evidence To Support Spending
The following article was published in the November 2012 issue of the Office's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.

Federal agencies, including those that provide funding for children and family initiatives, are being encouraged to find ways of using scientific evidence to measure program effectiveness and inform their budgeting decisions.

The push comes from a recent federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo that directs federal departments and agencies to show in their fiscal 2014 budget submissions how to use evidence and evaluation, including their most innovative ways of doing so.

The directive stops short of requiring federal agencies to fund only programs and initiatives that evidence demonstrates are effective. Instead, it appears to be a step toward building the capacity of agencies to gather and evaluate evidence to improve program performance and guide the allocation of funds at a time of mounting pressure to tighten spending.

"There is recognition here that implementing evidence-based reforms is something the government is just learning how to do," said Jon Baron, president of the Washington, DC-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, a national advocacy organization. “To an extent, they are inventing it as they go along and are encouraging federal agencies to play a role in developing new evidence-based approaches.”

Evidence In Budgeting
Evidence-based government is not a new concept. Federal administrations going back to the 1960s have from time to time promoted the notion of funding programs based on evidence of their effectiveness.

There are plenty of examples of such an approach at the program level. Among the most recent is the Obama Administration’s use of evidence-based models to assess and fund a number of federal programs, including home visitation and teen pregnancy prevention. The programs are evaluated using scientific methods and the largest share of funding is awarded to those that evidence shows produce the best outcomes.

But overall, the use evidence to evaluate effectiveness and guide budget allocations has yet to become part of the DNA of governments and agencies across the country, whether federal, state or local.

Evidence-based budgeting is not without controversy, although the principle of supporting programs with proven track records of success and identifying ways to make programs more effective attracts little debate. Otherwise, there is a risk that scarce dollars will be spent on programs that do little to improve the outcomes of children and families. A child in an ineffective early learning program, for example, is less likely to be ready for school; a parent who gets a voucher for job training in an ineffective program is less likely to exit poverty.

“Whether we look at it as advocates of quality social services in general or as keepers of the public purse, to expect that the programs we do advocate for and fund can demonstrate positive outcomes seems like common sense to me,” said Raymond Firth, director of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development (OCD) Division of Policy Initiatives. “I wouldn’t go to a doctor if I didn’t believe he was using practices that had evidence that they were effective.”

More effective use of government dollars may be the most obvious of the potential benefits, but there are others. Evaluation rigorous enough to identify aspects of programs that work well and those that do not can lead to improvement and innovations in the nature of future programs.

“A secondary benefit is that it raises the status of evidence in public and agency discourse,” said OCD Co-Director Robert McCall, Ph.D. “And that is certainly welcome, because historically politics always trumps evidence in policy formation.”

Evidence-based budgeting also raises some questions about how such policies are carried out. One issue is that not all research is equal. Some methods of evaluation yield more credible findings than others. Some are more vulnerable to manipulation and spin than others. And it often takes a high level of sophistication to understand the differences.

An emphasis on outcomes also has potential drawbacks. “An emphasis on outcomes can sometimes give short shrift to implementation,” said McCall. “Your first outcome is whether the program was properly implemented. Did the service providers provide the service in the manner, nature and extent that we think should be effective? You shouldn’t be evaluating other outcomes until you determine whether the program was properly implemented.

“Policymakers and funders often want you to evaluate a program in its first cohort. To the extent the program is new and innovative, it may take two or three cohorts of people before the service providers get the implementation down. It takes a while to learn how to do that.”

Rigorous evaluation can identify aspects of programs that work well, as well as those that don’t, and offer insight into why. Such evidence tends to spur innovation, as long as research that leads to creative new solutions is adequately supported. A question regarding wider application of evidence-based policy is whether the heightened emphasis on demonstrating outcomes will affect support for research that looks beyond what is the tried and true today in search of innovations that will lead to better outcomes tomorrow.

The New Federal Approach
The recent OMB memo directs federal agencies to show how they use evidence in their fiscal 2014 budget submissions and includes a separate section describing their most innovative approaches. The motivation for such steps was explained by acting OMB director Jeffrey Zients, who wrote:

“Since taking office, the President has emphad the need to use evidence and rigorous evaluation in budget, management and policy decisions to make government work effectively. This need has only grown in the current fiscal environment. Where evidence is strong, we should act on it. Where evidence is suggestive, we should consider it. Where evidence is weak, we should build the knowledge to support better decisions in the future.”

The directive appears less about using evidence to decide which programs to fund than it is about prodding agencies to use evaluation more widely to gather evidence.

It invites agencies, for example, to propose new evaluations and suggests that resources will be available for initiatives expanding their use of evidence. Examples of such initiatives include low-cost evaluations using existing administrative data, expanding evaluations within existing programs and employing evaluations linked to performance partnerships that blend “multiple funding streams to test better ways to align services and improve outcomes.” \

OMB also directs federal agencies to show that, between fiscal years 2013 and 2014, they are increasing the use of evidence in formula and competitive programs. The directive offers several approaches for agencies to consider. The use of evidence-based grants is one.

The tiered frameworks used by several agencies, including the Department of Education, is an example of such an evidence-based grant strategy. Under that approach, the programs that demonstrate through rigorous evaluation stronger evidence of effectiveness are eligible for more funding. Other grants are available to programs with moderate outcomes or evidence. And some tiered initiatives provide funding for development of new models that don’t yet have strong evidence of effectiveness, but include an evaluation component, to promote innovation.

“Unlike earlier OMB initiatives, this is evidence and evaluation designed to foster program improvement rather than determining whether the program is working or not working and should be cut or get increased funding,” Baron said. “It’s not a thumbs up or thumbs down on the whole program. That’s not the goal of this evidence-building exercise. It’s trying to identify within programs which strategies or models are effective, using rigorous evaluation. It’s the kind of evidence that, if it shows effectiveness, can be disseminated throughout the whole program and used to improve its overall performance.”

For more details, see the May 18, 2012 OMB memorandum, which can be found online at: