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Op-Ed

From an Unlikely Source, Praise for an Obama Approach to Social Policy

It’s not every day–particularly these days–that a former Republican Ways and Means Committee staffer and a veteran of the George W. Bush White House has nice things to say about Barack Obama’s approach to domestic policy. So that’s one reason to take note of “Show Me the Evidence,” a book out next week by Ron Haskins and Greg Margolis that lauds a little-noted Obama approach to social policy.

Mr. Haskins, a psychologist by training who came to Washington in 1985, played a big role in crafting the welfare-reform legislation of the 1990s. He is skeptical of the value of many federal social programs and has a social scientist’s affection for using evidence–such as the results of randomized controlled trials like the ones drug companies undertake–to make better policy to fight poverty, teen pregnancy, and other social ills. But “within my first five minutes in Washington,” he writes, he realized that social-science evidence generally played next to no role in what  government actually does.

Years later, in the summer of 2010, Mr. Haskins was pleasantly surprised to discover one day that the Obama White House was investing much energy and political capital to change the way Washington funds social programs and direct more money to those things that evidence shows are working. The Obama White House has “a well-conceived plan for using rigorous success as a basis for developing, testing and expanding effective domestic social programs,” the book argues. For instance, legislation funding an Obama-backed expansion of a Bush initiative that sends nurses into the homes of low-income new parents requires that 75% of the funding go to applicants whose plans are backed by “well-designed and rigorous randomized control” or “quasi-experimental” research designs.

(Full disclosure: Mr. Haskins is now at the Brookings Institution, as I am, but I had nothing to do with his research or book.)

While former Obama budget director Peter Orszag, a Ph.D. economist, and his staff–particularly Robert Gordon, who is now at the Department of Education–pushed hard for Cabinet agencies to rely more on evidence in making funding decisions, Congress and some agencies were resistant. (In Mr. Haskins and Mr. Margolis’s retelling, the Department of Labor was particularly so.) Congress prefers formulas that spread the wealth across the country, in contrast to an approach where states and localities compete for money–and only the best ones win in a contest judged by Cabinet agencies. “In politics, evidence is typically used as a weapon–mangled and used selectively in order to claim that it supports a politician’s predetermined political position. That is policy-based evidence, not evidence-based policy,” the authors write.

The book’s best reporting is its behind-the-scenes descriptions of the trench warfare that administration officials (and their allies on congressional staffs) waged to get favorable language into legislation. Its six case studies illustrate how determined, well-intentioned technocrats sometimes manage to get things done in Washington, a welcome contrast to the popular (and not entirely wrong) belief that only campaign contributors and  well-funded lobbyists get their way. It also offers a peek into the ways an aggressive White House influences how Cabinet agencies distribute funds appropriated by Congress. This isn’t “House of Cards.” It’s a story of dogged, tedious, detail-oriented, persistence.

Did any of this pay off in better outcomes? Alas, Mr. Haskins and Mr. Margolis say it is too soon to tell whether the 700 programs funded under the six initiatives are succeeding. “Even under the best of circumstances, it will be many years before it is known whether the programs funded under the initiatives are actually leading to reduction in those [social] problems,” they acknowledge.

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