Proving and evaluating government’s worth

government's worth data word in wood typeThe modern ability to collect and evaluate data is allowing local and state governments to become more effective and efficient. In this New York Times article, David Leonhardt writes that the federal government is just starting to figure out how to use data to do its many jobs better. For example, he points out that most programs designed to benefit Americans with low or moderate incomes could stand improvement. That improvement, he contends, could come in the form of harnessing the power of big data.

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.

The article goes on to cite several examples of how government is figuring out “what works and what doesn’t,” including an trial experiment in Durham, North Carolina that is examining whether home visits from nurses improves the health outcomes of newborns.

Data-driven analysis of government programs will both prove their worth and challenge our ideas of what’s worth doing. We have to be ready to embrace both outcomes.

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