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Congress sends mixed signals on evidence-based programming

May 17, 2017
By: Mark Skinner

In an unexpected twist, the FY 2017 budget passed earlier this month by Congress has more dislikes than likes for evidence-based program and policy design, despite being embraced strongly by both Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Masked under a variety of different nomenclatures – performance contracting, social impact bonds, pay for success, for example – evidence-based programming incorporates rigorous metrics to assess the effectiveness of public policy toward meeting its goals and basing expenditures accordingly. The largest initiative testing its merit in federal funding outlays was the Social Innovation Fund, housed within the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Congress eliminated the entire $54 million for the program, which had supported dozens of pay for success pilot programs across the country.

In the conference report that accompanied the final budget bill, Congress also chastised the U.S. Department of Education for applying pay for success principles without explicit approval from Congress:

“There is significant concern about the Department's allocation of resources available through various national activities authorities for pay for success projects.  While pay for success and other innovative financing mechanisms may prove to be a worthy investment, these projects were explicitly authorized under the Every Student Succeeds Act only in three instances.”

On the other hand, evidence-based initiatives -- and the flexibility to apply related financial tools – were allowed to continue through extended authorization for the Performance Partnerships Pilots for Disconnected Youth program in several agencies including the Education Department as well as CNCS, and the departments of Labor, Justice, Health & Human Services, and HUD.

Proponents for the approach to match future funding more closely to outcomes through proven programs can point with hope to recent guidance from the Trump Administration’s OMB, reports the Social Innovation Research Center. An April 12 memo from OMB Director Mike Mulvaney to all executive departments and agencies includes the following endorsement of evidence-based policy:

“Build and use a portfolio of evidence to improve effectiveness. Agencies should propose strategies to use limited resources as smartly as possible by asking: what works, for whom, and under what conditions; whether programs are being implemented effectively; and how programs can be improved to produce better results. Evidence may include results from program monitoring and evaluations, performance measures, statistics, and other forms of research and analysis.” (p. 10)

The TBED community should take interest in support for evidence-based programming with the goal to structure their activities around strong performance metrics, as interest is likely to grow from other major funding sources despite the 2017 federal budget setback. For instance, in the philanthropic sector, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has made broadening application of evidence-based policy innovation one of its primary initiatives.  The foundation’s website includes background on the concept for those new to the topic.

congress, policy