in The New York Times: “If you wanted to bestow the grandiose title of “most successful organization in modern history,” you would struggle to find a more obviously worthy nominee than the federal government of the United States.
In its earliest stirrings, it established a lasting and influential democracy. Since then, it has helped defeat totalitarianism (more than once), established the world’s currency of choice, sent men to the moon, built the Internet, nurtured the world’s largest economy, financed medical research that saved millions of lives and welcomed eager immigrants from around the world.
Of course, most Americans don’t think of their government as particularly successful. Only 19 percent say they trust the government to do the right thing most of the time, according to Gallup. Some of this mistrust reflects a healthy skepticism that Americans have always had toward centralized authority. And the disappointing economic growth of recent decades has made Americans less enamored of nearly every national institution.
But much of the mistrust really does reflect the federal government’s frequent failures – and progressives in particular will need to grapple with these failures if they want to persuade Americans to support an active government.
When the federal government is good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad (or at least deeply inefficient), it’s the norm.
The evidence is abundant. Of the 11 large programs for low- and moderate-income people that have been subject to rigorous, randomized evaluation, only one or two show strong evidence of improving most beneficiaries’ lives. “Less than 1 percent of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence of cost-effectiveness,” writes Peter Schuck, a Yale law professor, in his new book, “Why Government Fails So Often,” a sweeping history of policy disappointments.
As Mr. Schuck puts it, “the government has largely ignored the ‘moneyball’ revolution in which private-sector decisions are increasingly based on hard data.”
And yet there is some good news in this area, too. The explosion of available data has made evaluating success – in the government and the private sector – easier and less expensive than it used to be. At the same time, a generation of data-savvy policy makers and researchers has entered government and begun pushing it to do better. They have built on earlier efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations.
The result is a flowering of experiments to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
New York City, Salt Lake City, New York State and Massachusetts have all begun programs to link funding for programs to their success: The more effective they are, the more money they and their backers receive. The programs span child care, job training and juvenile recidivism.
The approach is known as “pay for success,” and it’s likely to spread to Cleveland, Denver and California soon. David Cameron’s conservative government in Britain is also using it. The Obama administration likes the idea, and two House members – Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, and John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat – have introduced a modest bill to pay for a version known as “social impact bonds.”
The White House is also pushing for an expansion of randomized controlled trials to evaluate government programs. Such trials, Mr. Schuck notes, are “the gold standard” for any kind of evaluation. Using science as a model, researchers randomly select some people to enroll in a government program and others not to enroll. The researchers then study the outcomes of the two groups….”