We need a federal budget based on what works

We need a federal budget based on what works

Congress created the Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking to infuse scientific evidence into the decisions of policymakers as the first step in making policies that improve our lives while not wasting taxpayers’ money on unproven strategies. Its work recently culminated in a final report in September 2017 that recommended improving secure access to data, modernizing privacy protections and strengthening government’s evidence-building capacity.

Following the recommendations of the commission — that decisions to support government-funded public policies stay true to the existing evidence base — we recommend that lawmakers change the budgeting process to examine the likelihood of success for each policy and program listed in the line-item federal budget.

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At present, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) evaluates the budget and produces a “score” that reflects the financial costs to government and individuals if an action becomes law. Lawmakers weight the projected budgetary impact of any given legislation against intended benefits to citizens (e.g., health, tax burden, natural security, etc.). If the policies and programs in our federal budget were also scored based on the existing evidence base, and not speculation, vested interests or political leanings, the federal budget would be spent on what works, thus saving (not wasting) money and truly making a positive difference.

 

So, in addition to a strict financial determination, we propose that the evidence for the likelihood of success (that is, the program or policy achieving its goals) be considered.

In short, evidence-based scoring provides a consistent, apolitical and empirical methodology to make decisions regarding federal expenditures, thus ensuring that we are spending our money expeditiously and with maximum gains. Indeed, doing so might be the most important action the government can take to promote evidence-based policy. We note that along similar lines, a recent report promoted an evidence-based tax expenditure budget.

Scoring can apply broadly to all aspects of the federal budget. For example, the level of funding for social services is often debated, with critics questioning the need and the ability to lift people out of poverty, reduce health costs and increase opportunities. Scoring would objectify the process, leading to elimination of programs that do not yield sufficient benefits (according to stringent evaluation efforts) and ensuring that we provide adequate support for programs that show strong effects. There are fewer skeptics when considering the Department of Defense (DoD) budget for programs or weapons; however, ongoing, quality evaluations would enable the government to more efficiently and effectively allocate defense resources.

Evaluations would be made by an independent, nonpartisan or bipartisan entity, much like the CBO scores for budget;  however, in this case, scores would reflect effectiveness. Input would be garnered from various evaluation research operations, including those familiar with the policies and programs. We recognize that the CBO has its critics and that there would be disagreements on ways in which an evaluation is conducted. Legislation could set standards for what experts consider to be evidence-based and “best practice.” Also critical is adherence to principles from the field of implementation science to provide guidelines for the end users (e.g., federal and local government agencies, community organizations, etc.), thereby optimizing the potential for successful outcomes.

The algorithm for this scoring system might be based on a rating scale of 1 to 10. Programs and policies receiving a 10 would be those supported by rigorous evaluation studies showing consistent evidence for achieving stated objectives. In contrast, a zero would be assigned to programs and policies that are found to have no evidence for effectiveness. When an evaluation is lacking and no determination can be made, the policy or program would not receive a score, pending further review. A description of each program and policy would accompany the score to provide justification and, when warranted, encourage further research.

In addition to a strict determination of the strength of effects, a cost-benefit analysis should be included in a scoring decision; specifically, what is the financial cost relative to the benefits incurred and the likely savings down the line, if enacted? For example, prevention programs for children and youths designed to forestall or avoid problems later in life are likely to realize a significant cost-savings, as we see for programs that prevent the development of drug addiction and other mental health disorders.

Lawmakers would not necessarily eliminate any budget items that are not rated, or are rated below a certain level, but this information would be duly noted along with the CBO scoring that lawmakers could utilize in further budget deliberations. For policies and programs that have not been evaluated, the push might be to fund an evaluation within a specified time period.

And hypothetically, the greater the expenditure required for a budget item, the more lawmakers will want to ensure its likelihood of success. Also important to consider: if a program or policy has potential to significantly improve lives and is deemed effective, Congress may be willing to spend more than initially appropriated.

We propose that this scoring system will result in more efficient and effective government operations, with money cautiously appropriated for that which the evidence suggests will work.  This enterprise will be costly in terms of needed resources, and will be accomplished only over a long time period, but we believe the benefits will be invaluable for taxpayers and the country as a whole, and it is time to get started.

Neil Wollman is a senior fellow at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and has done research on political issues for many years. He is the previous co-director of the National Prevention Science Coalition and a former faculty member at Manchester University in Indiana.

Diana H. Fishbein is professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University and directs the Program for Translational Research on Adversity and Neurodevelopment. She directs the National Prevention Science Coalition.