Launching an applied research team within city government: An interview with David Yokum, Director, The Lab @ DC – Interview #153

In 2016, the District of Columbia launched The Lab @ DC, based in the Office of the City Administrator within the Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser. Its mission: To embed the scientific method into the heart of day-to-day governance of the city to provide decision makers with high-quality evidence in order to improve results for the city. As its website notes, The Lab “generates timely, relevant, and high-quality ideas and evidence to inform the District’s most important decisions because DC residents deserve a government that asks questions, tests policies, and iteratively improves how it serves the community.”

To learn more, we are joined by the Lab’s founding director, David Yokum. Prior to his work with DC, he was one of the founders of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team at the White House, which applied insights from the behavioral sciences to improving federal agency operations.

How New Zealand links data from public data sets to address important policy challenges: An interview with Kelvin Watson, Deputy Chief Executive, Statistics New Zealand – Episode #152

Statistics New Zealand (@Stats_NZ) is the government department of New Zealand charged with collecting and producing statistical information. It is known as a leader in terms of linking data from different data sets in order to enable research and insights into important and complex policy challenges with the goal of improving outcomes for New Zealanders. For over ten years, Stats NZ (as it is also called) has been working on data integration including the creation of the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) in 2011. Today the IDI is is a large research database containing microdata from a range of government agencies, including over 165 billion facts.

To learn more, we are joined by Kelvin Watson, the Deputy Chief Executive for Data Services at Stats NZ.

Linking data to improve human services while working within privacy laws: An interview with Erin Dalton and Brian Bell, Allegheny County Department of Human Services – Episode #151

The Department of Human Services (DHS) in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, is a leader in the use of data to continually improve services for its residents. In 1999, DHS created its Data Warehouse that consolidated its human services data relating to topics such as behavioral health, child welfare and homeless services. It then expanded this database to include data from other county agencies as well as the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

How was the department able to link data across programs and with providers, given what often seems like insurmountable privacy laws that can make data sharing difficult? We get insights from Erin Dalton, the Deputy Director for the Office of Data Analysis, Research and Evaluation (DARE), and Brian Bell, a supervisor within DARE and also the privacy officer at the department.

Our interview builds on an earlier conversation with Erin Dalton that provides an overview of the Data Warehouse.

Four fundamental principles of evidence-based policy and practice, drawing from U.S. and European experience: An interview with Howard White, Executive Director, Campbell Collaboration – Episode #150

What principles can help guide public leaders—whether policymakers or public managers—in their use of evidence-based policy to improve results? Howard White (@HowardNWhite) of the Campbell Collaboration joins us to share four fundamental principles:

  • 1. Use the right evidence to answer the right question. Different types of evidence — e.g., monitoring, process evaluation, impact evaluation and systematic reviews — all can produce useful information for decision makers. But each type of evidence should not be used to answer questions that are beyond its usefulness.
  • 2. Don’t rely on single studies. When possible, leaders should avoid making important funding decisions based on single studies, especially those done in one site. That’s because the findings from one study are often different from those of further studies. The best approach is to use systematic reviews (where they exist), meaning syntheses of multiple high-quality studies.
  • 3. Context matters for transferring evidence. Why do findings from one study often not replicate in another? A key reason is that context matters. For example, when a home visiting program found to be effective in the U.S. was tested in Britain, it produced no impact. Why? Likely it was the different context: Britain already provides services to low-income parents that are quite similar to the home visiting program in the U.S. It is why leaders should test out, with rigorous evaluation, programs and initiatives in their own setting, particularly if previous research was conducted in a different context.
  • 4. Evidence-based policy is not a blueprint (aka cookie cutter) approach. This is a way of summarizing the previous two principles. While architects can take the blueprints for one building and build the same building elsewhere, and chefs can take a recipe from one restaurant and cook it in another, public leaders need to be careful when applying research from one place or setting to another.

Dr. White is the Chief Executive Officer of the Campbell Collaboration, a nonprofit best known for its use of systematic reviews to help policymakers and others make well-informed decisions. Previously he was the founding Executive Director of the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) and led the impact evaluation program at the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group.

Photo credit: European Union

The opportunities and pitfalls of government reorganization: An interview with Bob Behn, Professor, Harvard Kennedy School – Episode #149

Last month, President Trump issued an executive order calling for agencies to analyze their structures and programs in preparation for a major reorganization. The Trump administration’s focus on reorganization raises the question of when is reorganization useful and what pitfalls need be avoided.

To get insights, we’re joined by Bob Behn. Although it is too early to comment on the Trump administration’s reorganization in particular, since it is still being formulated, he draws on lessons from other reorg efforts to provide advice to public leaders.

Bob Behn is one of the nation’s leading experts on leadership and performance management in government. He is a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and the faculty chair of its executive program called Driving Government Performance. He also publishes a free monthly newsletter called Bob Behn’s Public Leadership Report.

An overview of Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth, with lessons for other areas of social policy: An interview with Thaddeus Ferber, Vice President, Forum for Youth Investment – Episode #148

One of the most innovative new approaches in Federal policy is known as Performance Partnership Pilots, also called P3. In 2014, Congress authorized several Federal agencies, including Education, Labor and HHS, to enter into up to ten Performance Partnership agreements per year with states, regions, localities, or tribal communities. These agreements allow these jurisdictions to have additional flexibility in using discretionary funds across multiple Federal programs, in exchange for a commitment to achieve significant improvements for disconnected youth, meaning youth that are not in school and not working. The P3 concept, however, could in theory be applied to many other social policy areas as well.

To learn more, we are joined by Thaddeus Ferber, a Vice President at the Forum for Youth Investment, an organization that advocated for and helped bring about the P3 authorization.

How the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab (RIIPL) works: An interview with Justine Hastings, Director, RIIPL – Episode #147

In 2015, a unique collaboration was launched call the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab (RIIPL). It is a partnership between researchers at Brown University and the Office of the Governor of Rhode Island, with the goal of helping state agencies design evidence-based policies to better serve Rhode Island families.

RIIPL’s goal is to use data and science to improve policy, alleviate poverty and increase equity of opportunity. To do that work, it has created a new linked database of public programs, connecting more than 100 previously independent data sets.

To learn more and hear about some example projects, we are joined my Justine Hastings (@JHastings_Econ). She is an economist at Brown University and the founding director of RIIPL.

The importance of replication and validation in evidence-based policy: An interview with Tammy Chang, U.S. Treasury Department, and Nathaniel Higgins, formerly U.S. Social and Behavioral Sciences Team – Episode #146

In this podcast episode, we explore two real-life stories from the front lines of government performance improvement efforts that highlight the importance of replication and validation in evidence-based policy.

In the U.K., the department of revenue and customs, in conjunction with the U.K. Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), tested new versions of the letter sent to people who were late in paying their taxes. The new versions simply added ones additional sentence, a behavioral “nudge” that drew on the power of social norms. As the New York Times explained:

One nudge was a sentence telling recipients that a majority of people in their community had already paid their taxes. Another said that most people who owe a similar amount of tax had paid. Both messages bolstered tax collection, and combining them had an even stronger effect. Over the last financial year, the letters brought forward £210 million of revenue, Britain’s revenue and customs department says — money that otherwise would have had to be chased in costly court procedures and failed to earn interest for the government.

A few years later, the U.S. Treasury Department, in conjunction with the U.S. Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) — the Obama Administration’s version of the BIT — decided to test a similar approach. They updated the letters sent to people who owed non-tax debt to the Federal government, simplifying and personalizing the letters and adding similar behavioral nudges as in the U.K.. The results showed no effect on payment rates, underscoring how context matters.

To learn more, we are joined by Tammy Chang, a Senior Economist at U.S. Department of the Treasury within the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, and Nathaniel Higgins, a co-founder and Fellow on the former SBST.

How Massachusetts provides education policymakers with research insights: An interview with Carrie Conaway, Chief Strategy and Research Officer, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education – Episode #145

Massachusetts is known as a leader in providing education policymakers with research findings that they can use to improve policy and practices. The state’s Office of Planning and Research, within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE), takes a multifaceted approach:

  • Design a proactive research agenda, also known as a learning agenda
  • Increase internal capacity for research
  • Create partnerships with external researchers

To learn more, we are joined by Carrie Conaway (@clconaway), the Chief Strategy and Research Officer of the ESE. She leads the 15 person Office of Planning and Research.

How Seattle used results-driven contracting to improve homeless services: An interview with Jason Johnson, Deputy Director, Human Services Department, City of Seattle – Episode #144

Because many of the most important functions of state and local governments involve contracting for goods and services supplied by the private sector, improving procurement processes is an important way to strengthen outcomes for citizens. That is the motivation behind our series on results-driven contracting.

Our focus today is Seattle, Washington, whose Human Services Department worked with the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School to improve outcomes for its homeless population. The changes included:

  • Consolidating contracts and allowing for more flexibility
  • Establishing goals for homeless service providers and tracking progress
  • Using active contract management

To learn more, we are joined by is Jason Johnson, the Deputy Director of Human Services Department in Seattle.