What the Experts Say: Disruption in Policymaking

Author: Rachel Fulcher-Dawson

The Evidence Movement is working thanks to bipartisan support and the dedication of social service providers.

Research, by design, is meant to ask and answer questions. A big or, perhaps, THE big question in U.S. social policy is: what works to reduce poverty? Evidence-building, an actionable form of research, has gained traction in the past decade. The idea is to find innovative ways to improve the lives of vulnerable populations, test for impact, and, if proven effective, scale programs broadly and widely. Research labs have cropped up nationwide to look at what works in poverty programming at notable universities including LEO, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT and the Urban Labs Inclusive Economy Lab at the University of Chicago.

There are a handful of contemporary examples rooted in programs that began in the 1970s and 1990s where rigorous research of poverty-fighting programs have led to large scale, federally funded programs. More recently, the Families First Act of 2018 is a bipartisan effort that requires states to use evidence-based programs that support families in keeping at-risk children in their homes with appropriate prevention services. These examples prove the model, but there simply are not many of them. Yet.

Just six years ago, a federal, bipartisan effort to systemize evidence-building began. First came the Commission for Evidence Based Policymaking and then its resultant Evidence Act just two short years later. The goal of the Commission and then the Act was to create structures and to empower federal personnel to harness the data already being collected broadly to allow for more evidence building, more testing of programs for effectiveness, and ultimately, more focus on decision-making based on evidence. All for the benefit of those struggling in poverty in our country.

Importantly, efforts from outside of government have both supported these endeavors and expanded them. The Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities Initiative has now named 57 U.S. cities as being data-driven in decision-making. Likewise, Results for America has recognized 51 federal, 20 local, 40 state and 148 nonprofit Moneyball All-Stars, a designation that reflects a commitment to building evidence, investing in what works and declining to invest in what does not work. All of this is to say, the “Evidence Movement” has traction, attention and support across the country, up and down levels of government, across political parties and in both private and public sector leadership. It is disrupting norms and old systems about how government works.

It is working.

The “if you build it, they will come” sentiment is now being realized in ways that may fly under the radar as attention on politics and policy is largely focused on partisan stalemates and the economy. Meanwhile, in just the past six months, several reports show great traction for the Evidence Movement. A recent GAO report highlighted significant growth in federal agency use of performance information in decision-making since 2007 with increases at 16 of 24 agencies.

Similar growth was highlighted in Results for America’s 2022 Invest in What Works Federal Standards of Excellence. RFA has assessed federal agencies across key data and evidence domains since 2013 when only two agencies were found to prioritize evidence across five grant programs to the tune of $3.2 billion in spending. RFA now finds that nine agencies — which oversaw more than $221 billion in federal funds this year — are using evidence and data in their decisions.

In February 2022, as required by the Evidence Act, federal agencies began releasing their Learning Agendas – strategic evidence-building plans where agencies ask big questions, identify gaps in information and plans for gathering it. The Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also developed a government-wide learning agenda to coordinate and ask cross-cutting questions. Finally, in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, evidence was highlighted in significant ways—where local and state governments were required to show how ARPA dollars are being spent on evidence-based programs. Results for America found 110 notable ARPA projects, including 24 evidence-based solutions (totaling $302 million), that can serve as models for state and local governments.

Why is it working?

A key feature of the Evidence Movement that gives many hope is that it has remained largely bipartisan and nonpartisan. Across the Bloomberg cities, we find both Democrat mayors and Republican mayors. The Evidence Act started as a bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Republican Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray and was signed into law by President Trump. Ideological divides that frustrate most efforts in Washington today, do not fall neatly in the evidence space. Perhaps the insistence on accountability appeals to conservatives while equity appeals to liberals. Fighting poverty by insisting that people in poverty deserve programs that we know will work for them also has moral and ethical appeal to humanists and religious entities as well. And the research labs dedicated to evidence building in the poverty space are decidedly outside of the Beltway, focused on where the evidence leads them, rather than guided by political bent. Oh and they also pay attention to publishable results, solidifying the certainty and credibility that peer-review affords.

When we think of the Evidence Movement in the poverty-fighting space, the key is also that it disrupts the paradigm from funding what decision-makers *think* works, to funding what providers are designing and testing for impact. These heroic providers, boots on the ground, sometimes get miscast as preferring business as usual in poverty fighting. In reality, they are anything but that. The providers we encounter at LEO, are invested in serving the people they encounter with the very best programs they can. For example, the pilot Padua program at Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW) partnered with LEO to evaluate their new wrap-around case management model. Padua addresses clients in a more holistic way, focusing on finances, education, social skills, legal status and physical and emotional well-being. The LEO evaluation found that 25 percent of participants were more likely to have full-time employment than the control group. Monthly earnings were 18 percent higher after two years, compared with the control group. As for self-reported health, 43 percent of participants reported improved health after two years. A program like Padua is breaking down silos of social programs, centering work on the whole person, disrupting the model of social service.

The Evidence Movement hinges on this—courageous social service, education and local government leaders and front line workers deciding to innovate, to test and to scale programs so that people in poverty have the very best chance and support to improve their lives with dignity. This coupled with momentum in Washington to make evidence more a part of decision-making is disruption that can benefit us all.

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