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In early December 2013, I attended a sold-out conference on performance measurement. It wasn’t the typical government crowd. The conference was filled with attendees from nonprofits and foundations, all dedicated to figuring out what works and putting their money toward programs with the most promise. In a ballroom abuzz with enthusiasm, I was particularly impressed with the sophisticated conversations on advancing evidence-based program decisions.
This enthusiasm goes beyond the nonprofit and public sector. The private sector uses the term “business analytics” to describe the use of statistics to inform business decisions. Over the last few years, a critical mass of stakeholders has quietly worked to build evidence-based decision-making into government as well. The media is calling this moneyball government, after the 2003 best-selling book by Michael Lewis on creating a winning baseball team through the astute use of statistics. The common goal is to use performance data, evidence, and program evaluation to reframe budget and program decisions in ways that reflect the value being created, not just the dollars being spent.
For example, a recent Washington Post article highlights the Department of Education’s Even Start program, created in 1988 to help youths from disadvantaged families do better in school. By 2004 the program was spending $248 million. Program evaluation studies from more than a decade ago found no evidence that Even Start succeeded, so President Bush, and then President Obama, recommended abolishing it. The program currently is unfunded.
At the local level, the New York City school system set out in 2010 to reduce chronic absenteeism, creating a task force that brought together a dozen city agencies and over 20 community-based and nonprofit organizations to identify and expand strategies for keeping students in school. According to a study by the nonprofit America Achieves, the task force pioneered a new approach to collecting and analyzing realtime attendance data and evaluating different intervention techniques in 100 schools. The task force identified successful approaches such as providing in-school mentors. Students with these mentors spent more than 80,000 additional days in school compared to students without a mentor.