The Times has a fascinating blog starting with a discussion of a recent OMB memo requiring federal agencies in their 2014 budget planning to build in use of evidence and a focus on low-cost evaluations.
As the Memo puts it:
Agencies should demonstrate the use of evidence throughout their Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 budget submissions. Budget submissions also should include a separate section on agencies’ most innovative uses of evidence and evaluation, addressing some or all of the issues below. Many potential strategies have little immediate cost, and the Budget is more likely to fund requests that demonstrate a commitment to developing and using evidence. The Budget also will allocate limited resources for initiatives to expand the use of evidence, including but not limited to approaches outlined below.
The following language is particularly apposite for programs like LSC:
Encouraging use of evidence in formula grants: OMB invites agencies to propose ways to increase the use of evidence-based practices within formula grant programs. For example, formula funds can be conditioned on the adoption of evidence-based practices, and high-quality technical assistance can be used to share and support implementation of evidence-based practices. Competitive programs can assign points to applicants based on their integration of such practices into formula streams.
The blog post goes on to describe the history of evidence-based practices first generally, and then in social service type programs. It points out, as does the Memo, that such research can be very low cost, and have a high impact. One important thread running throughout is the idea that evidence-based decision-making is not so much about showing that a program area as a whole is effective or ineffective, but rather about showing which practices within an area are most effective, or least, effective.
Here, from the Times blog is a wonderful example of low cost innovation and research with a massive impact.
Evidence isn’t important just for accountability; it’s essential for innovation. Consider a study conducted in 2008 to test whether college enrollment could be boosted by simplifying the financial aid application (FAFSA) process. During tax season, researchers arranged for a subset of low- to moderate-income families (with young adults at home) to receive assistance at 156 H&R Block tax preparation offices in Ohio and North Carolina. Using tax information, the H&R Block representative automatically pre-populated the FAFSA (which has more than 100 questions and can take hours to complete). The representative then conducted a short interview to complete the form, told the families how much aid they would qualify for, provided tuition information for four local public colleges, and offered to submit the form immediately to the Department of Education. The intervention cost less than $90. Youths whose families received help were 29 percent more likely to attend college for at least two consecutive years. That’s a huge gain for a tiny outlay of effort. The big question is: How do we make sure that evidence like this makes it into policy systematically? (bold added.)
Here: from the Memo, are more steps being taken to give life to this area:
OMB invites your agency to participate in a number of forums to improve use of evidence:
- OMB and the Council of Economic Advisers will organize a series of topical discussions with senior policy officials and research experts in the agencies. The meeting agendas will focus on administrative and policy levers for driving an increasing share of Federal investments into evidence-based practices. We will plan summer meetings in order to help inform agencies’ evaluation plans and budget submissions, and will also have follow-up meetings in the fall.
- OMB will reinvigorate the interagency evaluation working group established in 2010 with a series of meetings focused on issues commonly affecting evaluators, such as procurement rules, the Paperwork Reduction Act, and the integration of evidence in agencies’ decision-making process.
- The Performance Improvement Council will convene research, performance management, and program officials to develop ways to improve performance measures, validate their correlation with outcome data from program impact evaluations, and use data analytics to support more cost-effective decision-making.
- The Office of Science and Technology Policy has created a “community of practice” for agency personnel involved in designing and managing incentive prizes and has organized a Science of Science Policy working group that is developing tools aimed at establishing a more scientific, empirical evidence basis for science and technology policymaking.
We in the access to justice world can be proud that we are now seeing some ground-breaking randomized studies being conducted by Jim Greiner at Harvard, that NLADA has created a new position with broad research and evaluation responsibilities, and that there is now much broader acceptance of the importance of this approach, as demonstrated by the deep discussion at the SRLN Pre-Conference at the Equal Justice Conference (agenda with description of issues at session), and the general sense of agreement at the research session in the Conference itself — a real change from a few years ago.
So, here are some thoughts on how we might take advantage of this emerging moment of opportunity:
- The DOJ Access Initiative might convene gatherings on evidence-based methodology in access to justice, and might work with DOJ grant-making entities on further enhancing these approaches.
- LSC might look at ways of promoting using such methodology to make use of data already in the possession of its grantees, and consider the suggestions in the OMB Memo
- The LSC Technology Summit may provide a particularly good way of laying the groundwork for the capacity (including routine data collection and data mining) to support such research
- Access Commissions and IOLTA’s might work together to promote such practices, including encouraging law schools to build capacity such as Harvard’s, and to include partnerships with community colleges as research partners, such as those pioneered by Orange County Legal Aid.
- SJI, long supportive of research, might consider increasing the sophistication of its approach, particularly in areas of strategic focus, such as the self-represented.