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Prove It or Lose It

By Thomas I Miller

Imagine a world, let’s say you’re world, where all important decisions are based on solid empirical evidence, which includes, but is not limited to your own observations and experiences. Many of your most important decisions already are experience-based: drivers stop at red lights (except when they don’t); when treated well, kids grow up to become productive adults (unless they’re slackers); applicants with strong resumes become valued employees (until they take you to court). So you hit the gas when the light turns green, do right by your children and hire staff with good track records. Generally, following what experience tells you can keep you out of trouble. But not always.

evidencebasedAlthough today’s wisdom can become tomorrow’s lunacy, these days, the smart money for corporate and government managers is on evidence-based decisions. Those are decisions that come from more than your own experience, which need not be discounted. Evidence-based decisions come largely from credible data sources, usually delivered by experts in finance, engineering, medicine and the social sciences that have made disciplined inquiries on topics that have practical relevance to your work and home life.

Steve Kelman’s recent article on evidence-based funding, as highlighted in Government Management Daily, states that the best part of the Obama 2015 budget is the clear emphasis on funding what works. Kelman’s article, “‘Evidence-based government’ and the FY 2015 budget,” is an advertisement for empirical data about the effectiveness of the programs and policies that government delivers. Curiously, even such a seemingly unarguable accolade has drawn supporters who have referred to it kindly as the “Moneyball approach to government” or critics who cynically refer to it as “Moneyballoney.”

It is fair to wonder if the role of government is to be as risk taking, as Billy Beane was when he switched recruitment for the Oakland A’s to fit a statistical algorithm instead of relying on the old school “know it when you see it” approach to finding baseball stars. Managers are unlikely to be hired because they are risk takers. In fact, the opposite characteristic often is sought in local government administrators. Elected officials want staff leaders who can “stay the course,” “get things done,” accomplish the plan set out by the elected body. But this doesn’t mean that public administrators can rule by gut alone. See Russ Linden’s piece in Governing for how government leaders can overcome inhibitions to take risk.

Local government managers can’t and shouldn’t ignore the pressure to be data driven – at least at the office. Advocates and critics will assert truths that often are only hopes or fears, so having a predisposition toward evidence will make any manager look reasoned and reasonable. (Yes, you can try this at home.) But nothing is for certain and even evidence-based programs, best practice hirings or data driven policies need to be monitored to know if what was supposed to happen, in fact, did.

When you have or are creating evidence-based practices to help guide your decisions, use those tested practices. But remember that activities proven ‘here’ and ‘today’ (like more beat cops on foot) are not necessarily true ‘there’ or ‘tomorrow’ (when compared to the next best practice – predictive policing, that seems more effective). Seek what is now known to work, run your own tests on effectiveness, remain skeptical of claims of success that are not supported by credible evidence and install a system of measurement that can tell you what works and what does not.

The best and simplest system to test the effectiveness of your programs, policies or personnel is a survey of relevant stakeholders. Instead of funding and presuming the effectiveness of evidence-based programs or policies, test what policies and programs you have put into place. Regular scientific surveys of residents, business managers and local government employees will provide you with broad data about what those for whom you are providing service think about your efforts. Is the quality of community life improving? Do people feel safe? Are residents, employees, business owners confident in local government leaders? These and other fundamental questions that track your outcomes offer proof of effectiveness from the mouths and pens of those who live and work in your jurisdiction. Data that represents your entire community provide local leaders rock-hard ground on which to judge the effects of their work and to project where their next success will come.


Author: Thomas I Miller, is president of National Research Center, Inc., a survey research and evaluation firm that helps local governments create communities that thrive. Learn more at www.n-r-c.com or contact the author directly at [email protected] 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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