Can Evidence Trump Ideology?

One of the reasons often given for dysfunction in the nation’s capital is that the two parties are far too ideological in their approaches to policymaking. If Republicans and Democrats can only support policies that are consistent with the more extreme parts of their bases, very little will get done, because most issues require legislators to meet in the middle.

But as my colleague Greg Margolis and I spell out in our new book, Show Me the Evidence, “evidence-based policy”—policy supported by rigorous, scientific evaluation—offers a way to avoid these ideological roadblocks on at least some important social issues. Both parties agree that spending on social programs that reduce poverty and boost economic opportunity is an appropriate government activity. But Republicans are dubious about whether these programs actually work and so often oppose new spending or call for cuts in current spending on social programs. Democrats are more confident that the programs work, are more likely to support new spending, and usually oppose cuts in current social programs.

But what if we had reliable evidence that some programs produce good outcomes and might even save taxpayer dollars in the long run? Of course, many programs already claim that they are highly effective and save money, but policymakers are becoming more discerning about whether such claims are backed by quality evidence. The goal of the evidence-based movement that is now gaining traction in Washington is to increase the effectiveness of government social programs as shown by rigorous evidence. The Obama administration aims to increase the impacts of social programs by requiring federal grant funds to be spent on building up programs that already have strong evidence of success. The administration also insists on evaluating the effectiveness of existing programs in order to improve the performance of those with poor results.

Even better from the perspective of policymakers, when programs help to reduce social problems, it is a short step to conducting economic analyses that compare the costs of the programs with the monetary value of their impacts. Program evaluators can then determine whether the program produces value equal to or greater than its cost.

If this strategy is expanded to a wide variety of social programs which show measurable impacts, members of Congress will have fewer excuses for ideological bickering. Republicans could more easily support additional spending on programs with proven results. Democrats could more easily end programs shown to be ineffective. In a new world of evidence-based policy, it would be unwise and politically difficult to oppose spending on programs that are known to be cost effective and equally unwise and politically difficult to support spending on programs that are shown not to work.

As well as increasing the effectiveness of federal social programs, the evidence-based movement could also foster greater bipartisanship. Then everybody would win, including taxpayers.