Building an evidence base for an agency’s programs: An interview with Chris Spera, Chief Evaluation Officer, Corporation for National and Community Service

How can a public agency start to build an evidence base about what works for its programs? How can it strengthen an organizational focus on results and evidence — not just for itself, but also among the nonprofits that it funds through grants? And how can agencies use innovative tiered-evidence grant programs to focus grant dollars on approaches backed by strong evidence while still allowing promising new approaches to be tested?

To explore these issues, we’re joined by Chris Spera, the Director of Research and Evaluation (i.e., Chief Evaluation Officer) at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). CNCS is $1 billion federal agency that invests in community programs and interventions and helps more than five million Americans improve the lives of their fellow citizens through service. Its signature programs include AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and the Social Innovation Fund. [Note, since this interview, Chris has taken a new position at Abt Associates.]

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Evidence-based reform in education: An interview with Robert Slavin, Johns Hopkins University

 The field of education has seen a growing emphasis on the use on evidence for decision making about programs and practices. Even so, much more progress is needed. To learn more, we’re joined by Robert Slavin (@RobertSlavin), a leader in the area of evidence policy in education.

Dr. Slavin is the Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, Chairman of the Success for All Foundation, a part-time professor at the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York (England) and a columnist for the Huffington Post. He recently gave the keynote address to the American Psychological Association titled “Evidence-based reform in education.”

The interview discusses the current role of evidence in education, a vision for its greater use, and examples of efforts to use and grow the evidence base in education and encourage research-based reform, including the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program at the U.S. Department of Education.

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State’s Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis: An interview with Gary VanLandingham, Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative

 The Results First Initiative, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, launched in 2011 to help states strengthen their ability to use cost-benefit analysis to invest in policies and programs that work and that are cost effective. Their recent report, “States Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis,” is a first of its kind study to measure states’ use of this analytical tool. To learn more,we’re joined by Gary VanLandingham, Director of the Results First Initiative. In particular, we discuss:

  • To what extent are states today conducting cost-benefit analyses?
  • In which policy areas do those analyses tend to focus?
  • To what extent do states use the results when making policy and budget decisions?
  • What challenges do states face in conducting and using these studies?

Web extras: Gary VanLandingham discusses the study’s findings about where the capacity to do cost-benefit analyses is being built within states — for example, within governors’ offices or state legislatures. [click here] He also provides an update about the Results First project. [click here]

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Fighting for reliable evidence: An interview with Judith Gueron, MDRC, and Howard Rolston, Abt Associates

Gueron RolstonJudith Gueron and Howard Rolston join us to discuss their new book, Fighting for Reliable Evidence, published by the Russell Sage Foundation. It describes the four-decade effort to develop and use rigorous evidence from random assignment studies to improve social policy, particularly in the areas of welfare-to-work and anti-poverty policy.

Judith Gueron is the President Emerita at the social policy research firm MDRC. She joined MDRC as Research Director at its founding in 1974 and served as its President from 1986 to 2004. Howard Roston is a principal Associate at Abt Associates. He served from 1986 to 2004 as the Director of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE) at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services.


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Local perspectives on PerformanceStat: An interview with David Gottesman, Montgomery County, Maryland, and Greg Useem, City of Alexandria, Virginia

The “stat” approach, also called “PerformanceStat,” is a results-focused leadership strategy probably best known from CitiStat in Baltimore, but also used by dozens of local, state and federal offices and programs.

A key element involves “stat meetings” in which different agencies within a jurisdiction (or larger department) meet with  leadership every few weeks or months to review their performance measures and discuss ways to improve performance. It is designed to create an ongoing, data-driven, substantive discussion about what’s working, what’s not, and next steps for strengthening results.

To learn more about PerformanceStat at the local level, we’re joined by two leaders of performance management efforts in the Washington DC area:

  • David Gottesman is the CountyStat Manager for the Montgomery County Executive in Maryland; and
  • Greg Useem is the Chief Performance Officer for the City of Alexandria, Virginia and runs AlexStat.

Web extra: David Gottesman describes a new DC-regional network for performance management practitioners being launched in October 2013, in partnership with the University of Maryland. [click here] The effort is modeled in part on the StatNet initiative in New England.

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A provider’s perspective on random assignment evaluation: An interview with Sarah Hurley, Youth Villages

What is it like for a nonprofit social service provider to be part of a random assignment evaluation, also known as a randomized control trial (RCT)? And what are the key benefits and challenges of being involved in this type of evaluation? To explore these questions, we’re joined by Sarah Hurley, the Director of Research at Youth Villages.

Youth Villages, based in Memphis, Tennessee, provides behavioral health services to children and adolescents in 11 states and the District of Columbia. In 2008, it embarked on a random assignment evaluation of one of its signature programs, the Transitional Living Program. The study is being conducted by an independent evaluation firm and, with a sample size of more than 1,300, is the largest trial to date of an intervention for youth aging out foster care. Preliminary year-one results are due in 2014, but already, Youth Villages provides first hand experience with being part of a rigorous evaluation.

Web extras: Sarah Hurley discusses some of the ethical considerations involved in implementing a random assignment evaluation. [click here] She also provides her advice for other social service providers, or other types of organizations, that are considering undertaking an RCT. [click here]

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Important tools for evidence-based decision making: An interview with Margery Turner, Urban Institute

MargeryTurnerWhat are some of the key tools that that policymakers and practitioners can draw on to to inform and strengthen decisions? To explore these issues, we’re joined by Margery Turner (@maturner), a Senior Vice President at the Urban Institute. Her recent testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Resources, titled, “Evidence-Based Policymaking Requires a Portfolio of Tools.”

In her testimony, she write: “Today more than ever, policymakers need evidence to help inform major decisions about program design, implementation, and funding. Whether assessing the likely effectiveness of a new initiative, comparing competing approaches to a given problem, figuring out where to cut, or refining a program’s rules to make it more cost effective, decisions based on rigorous evidence make better use of scarce public dollars and improve outcomes for people.”

The tools she discusses in the interview include diagnostic research, microsimulation models, implementation research, randomized controlled trials and rapid, operationally-focused experimentation.

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The Moving to Opportunity Demonstration’s long-term findings: An interview with Lawrence Katz, Harvard University


Individuals in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods fare less well across a range of indicators, but to what extent do poor neighborhoods per se contribute to this? Investigating the answer, which requires isolating the effect of neighborhoods, can help policymakers craft more effective anti-poverty policies.

This was the motivation behind the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration, one of the most important studies of poverty and the effects of neighborhoods in the United States. MTO was a randomized social experiment sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It launched in 1994 and involved almost 5,000 families with children living in high-poverty public housing projects in five cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

To learn more about the MTO demonstration — including the questions that motivated the study, the study design, and its results — we’re joined by Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard University who helped lead the long-term, 15-year evaluation of MTO.

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Harnessing Silicon Valley funding approaches to drive breakthrough solutions in the public sector: An interview with Jeffrey Brown, Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) Program at USAID

Jeff_BrownThe Development Innovation Ventures Program (DIV) at USAID launched in 2010 with a mission to find, test and scale ideas that could radically improve global prosperity. Its key features include crowd sourcing of breakthrough solutions; staged funding to test those solutions; and prioritizing grant proposals based on their cost effectiveness, their use of rigorous evidence to show impact, and their ability to be scaled up over time.

While DIV focuses on international development, its evidence-based, outcome focused grant design has relevance for public leaders in many fields and levels of government. In fact, DIV is one of a small but growing number of federal grant programs using staged funding, also called tiered-evidence grants or innovation funds. Staged funding helps public agencies focus grant dollars on approaches backed by strong evidence, while still encouraging innovative new approaches.

To learn more, we’re joined by Jeffrey Brown (@jeffhbrown) who leads DIV at USAID. The interview includes: An overview of DIV; Stage 1 funding and an example related to strengthening the work of frontline health workers in India; Stage 2 funding and an example related to bringing safe power sources to villages in India; Stage 3 funding and an example related to promoting safe drinking water in Kenya; an overview of what it takes to run a staged grant program; and the applicability of DIV’s approach to other policy areas.

Web extra: Jeffrey Brown discusses the usefulness of building an rigorous evaluation strategies into grant-funded projects before they are launched, rather than trying to measure impact later on or after the fact. [click here]

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New York City’s Social Impact Bond, the first in the U.S.: An interview with Linda Gibbs, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, New York City

Linda_GibbsIn 2012, New York City launched the first Social Impact Bond (SIB) in the United States. Under the SIB model, investors provide up-front capital for preventive interventions and government only pays when measurable results are achieved. In New York City’s case, the SIB will fund services to about 3,000 adolescent men (ages 16 to 18) who are jailed at Rikers Island. The goal of the initiative, which will run from 2012 to 2015, is to reduce recidivism and its related budgetary and social costs.

To tell us more, we’re joined by Linda Gibbs (@lindagibbs), the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Social Impact Bonds – also referred to as Pay for Success approaches – are being considered in a growing number of cities, states and federal agencies as a way to speed up the pace of social innovation, fund preventive services at a time of tight budgets, and improve social policy outcomes and reduce costs. The results from New York City’s SIB will therefore have implications across the nation.

As you listen to the interview, it may be helpful to view this diagram of the organizations involved in the Rikers Island SIB. To learn more SIBs/Pay for Success more generally, resources include the learning hub maintained by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Harvard’s SIB Lab, and this overview article from Community Development Investment Review.

Web extra: Linda Gibbs discusses the city’s broader effort to strengthen evidence-based policy, including strengthening its analytic capabilities to learn and do what works in social policy. [click here]

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