Urban Wire How evidence-based decisionmaking enhances public service
Demetra Smith Nightingale
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Career civil servants are the foundation of government. Within the public sector, rules and procedures ensure consistency and compliance with laws. But the large federal bureaucracy also creates unpleasantness that can lead to inefficiencies, such as an inordinately slow pace, complex levels of clearance, and procedures that rarely get changed. Using evidence to make decisions and manage programs helps civil servants and their agencies use best practices in management and improve performance.

The current federal evidence-based policy agenda has gained traction in the US over the past two decades. The term “evidence” is used in many ways, but it fundamentally means using information produced through a systematic analysis of results. Evidence includes results from performance measurement and findings from formal program evaluations.    

A few examples from my time as chief evaluation officer at the US Department of Labor show how evidence can improve government effectiveness:

Learn from what works.

Findings from rigorous independent evaluations can identify the impact of policies or programs. Administrators and staff can use the results to increase emphasis on effective strategies or decrease emphasis on ineffective strategies. Evaluations of registered apprenticeship training, for example, have shown positive net impacts, and the Department of Labor justified increased funding based on the evidence.

Test innovations.

Formal evaluations of pilots and demonstrations can test innovative practices that could produce better outcomes. Results of evaluations of career pathways training demonstrations, which combine postsecondary education with job training for a specific occupation or industry, were strong enough to justify continued funding of these employer-demanded training models and continued evaluations to build the evidence base.

Improve data quality.

Statistical analysis can explore the relationships among various performance measures, either those being used or those being considered. Administrators can use this analysis to establish appropriate goals or targets and hold programs accountable.

Statistical analysis of veteran employment services found that veterans who received services from staff who specialized in veterans’ issues had better employment and earnings outcomes than veterans who received services from general staff. This evidence helped the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service revise reporting data to allow further analysis of subgroups of veterans and target veterans who required the most help.

Maintain performance even when funding is limited.

Evidence can help make resource decisions when funds are limited. Regular analysis of performance measures in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration revealed that balancing inspections to firms in certain high-risk industries was an efficient way to maintain and even increase performance and reduce workplace injuries.

Public servants are responsible for an efficient government. Good data, sound analysis, and rigorous evaluations can help them achieve better outcomes. Job satisfaction rises when public servants know they have achieved their objectives.

This post originally appeared on the National Academy of Public Administration.

Research Areas Taxes and budgets
Tags Campaigns, proposals, and reforms U.S. tax issues Evidence-based policy capacity Federal tax issues and reform proposals