Should all failing social programs be cut? Or does reassessing and improving them make more sense? Delivering the 2017 Sheffrin Lecture in Public Policy, Ron Haskins offered a definitive answer.
Haskins' talk on May 23, 2017, was titled “Is Evidence-Based Policy Going to Improve Social Programs?” For Haskins—Cabot Family Chair in Economic Studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution—the answer to the question posed by his title is resoundingly yes.
The goal of policymakers, he said, should be to stop spending money on social programs that don’t work and spend it instead on those that do. The best way to achieve that goal is to facilitate evidence-based analyses of the results produced by government-sponsored programs.
Social programs funded by the government deal with a wide range of issues, from child literacy to teen pregnancy. The failure of some of them leads to distrust of government spending. To combat this issue, Haskins argued, policymakers must move beyond political rhetoric and embrace an evidence-based approach to managing federal finances. Doing so, however, presents several challenges.
Failing to succeed
Firstly, Haskins said, evaluations reveal that up to 90 percent of large-scale social programs are failing to fix the issues they were created to solve. Program operators are thus concerned that, if their program is rated as a failure, they will lose financial support. This creates a political paradox: while policymakers want to evaluate government programs in order to manage spending, these evaluations require the cooperation of program operators—cooperation that is often difficult to secure.
Haskins proposes that policymakers recognize that “you have to fail to succeed.” Although it may be politically popular to immediately cut programs that fail, this mentality actually hampers social progress. If politicians threaten to immediately cut social programs that fail, program administrators will not allow their programs to be evaluated and the government will continue to waste money on programs for which there is no evidentiary basis of success.
Therefore, policymakers should allow operators to reassess their programs after they are deemed to be failing. Such a system of reassessment would allow the government to collect more data on successful programs. It would also allow operators to refine the structure of their programs over time.
Overcoming political resistance
A second major problem highlighted by Haskins was political resistance to evidence-based policy. Politicians are often unwilling to support such evaluations of programs that they sponsor on the grounds that, if such a program is found to be insufficiently successful, the program might become a political liability.
The public’s expectations must change, Haskins said. Requiring our leaders to support evidence-based policy will produce a cycle of success. Improvements in government-sponsored programs will justify increasing government spending, which in turn will lead to further success down the line.
— Michael Haggerty
Learn more about the Sheffrin Lecture in Public Policy.