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.
The frame of the article is that recently some economists are calling for a more institutionalized process for evaluating government programs. One proposal is to start by including evaluations in decisions for federal transfers to state and local governments:
[Harvard economist and former Obama budget official] Jeffrey 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.
Given there is “no natural ideological constituency” for this sort of thing, how do the economists expect policy makers to get on board? Apparently there are some assumptions about the wisdom of voters and the electoral incentive.
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.
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.”