Using a numbers-based approach to end political gridlock in ‘Moneyball for Government’

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    It turns out that data may also have a role to play in politics.

    As everyone knows, Republicans and Democrats are as far apart as ever these days, especially after this month's midterm elections. But some are trying to change that. A bipartisan group of authors has written a new book, "Money ball for Government," a data-driven approach to policy-making endorsed by key players on both sides of the aisle, including two current U.S. senators, former White House staffers and policy experts.

    Gwen Fill recently spoke to two of the book's contributors. John Bridgeland, he's a former domestic policy adviser for President George W. Bush, and Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council under Presidents Obama and Clinton.


    Gene Sperling, John Bridgeland, Republican and Democrat sitting next to each other talking about how to fix government.

    One of the interesting things in this book "Moneyball for Government," John Bridgeland, is you describe as playing tee-ball in a sandlot, that you don't keep score, you don't know what inning it is, and everybody gets a trophy.

    JOHN BRIDGELAND, Domestic Policy Adviser for President George W. Bush: Yes.


    How is government policy like that?


    It's a remarkable thing, Gwen. Less than one dollar out of every hundred of federal domestic spending is backed by even the most basic evidence.

    In fact, government managers of programs across the federal government, only 37 percent tell us that they have significant evaluations over the last five years for their programs. So government is basically flying blind when it comes to government spending.

    And Gene and I and a bipartisan group of domestic, economic and budget policy advisers across three administrations want to bring a culture of evidence-based policy-making to our federal departments and agencies and the Congress.


    Gene, this reminds me of covering the Clinton administration, of which you were a part, and Al Gore was tasked with reinventing government, which seemed like a big thing to bite off. And now we're calling to reinvent government again, aren't we?

    GENE SPERLING, Director of the National Economic Council for Presidents Obama and Clinton: Well, I think there's a special focus here.

    I think that there's a lot of different ways to reinvent government and I think there's focus on being more customer-friendly, customer-oriented.

    But I think what this is trying to say is to create that culture that you are always trying to, when you're making policy, ask, where is the best evidence, make sure you are doing those evaluations. Look, most people are doing very good things in public service and programs are doing — a lot of programs are doing very well. Just because there's not evidence base doesn't mean they're not doing the things.

    But it does mean that we may not be learning the most or doing the most effective things.


    The term Moneyball, we should explain, came from the Michael Lewis book and the movie with Brad Pitt that we remember in which the Oakland A's remade their team by just looking dispassionately at numbers, and rather than add talent or any kind of the things they couldn't measure. Measurables.


    That's right.


    But it seems that, in Washington, measurables are used to stop things. It depends on whose measurable you use. Right?



    Actually, Gene makes a really good point. Out of the new markets initiative in the Clinton administration, they created youth opportunity grants to deal with this highly vulnerable population of 16-to-24-year-olds who cost taxpayers $93 billion if they don't reconnect to school and employment every year.

    And this program didn't have any evaluation at the time, and it was a very innovative program. And in the next few years, it was cut by the Congress, completely eliminated. And a few years later, there was an independent evaluation showing that it had extraordinary outcomes in boosting employment, reconnection to school and work for the most vulnerable young people on tribal lands, rural areas and in cities.

    So that was a good example of Gene's point. We can't just have an on/off switch. What we're trying to do is build an environment of continuous learning, and building up the evidence base, and then to support those efforts that are effective.


    In this political environment, how do you stop everyone from lunging from the off-switch? I have evidence that proves this shouldn't happen, end of discussion.


    Well, I think that that does happen, and I think that's unfortunate.

    And I think then, in that case, what's happening is people are really just staying with an ideological view, and they're just trying to use a piece of evidence to say, we shouldn't even make that area a mission of ours.

    I think what people like John and I think is that there's — there are things that are important things we as a country should be doing on youth poverty, on early childhood, on worker training. And we're not looking for an on or off switch to say, if one study doesn't work, you give up the mission, but to learn.

    And I think the example — you know, my sister is a professor of immunology near Chicago. When they're doing experiments, they don't say, oh, that didn't work, let's give up as a country on finding a cure for cancer or for AIDS. But they learn from it.

    It needs to not be an on and off switch. It needs be a tool for getting smarter and wiser in things that we should have a shared mission of accomplishing.


    Let me cite a timely example.

    So the Tea Party movement has said they want a more efficient government, which sounds kind of what you're saying, but their interpretation of efficient might be the government should stay out of immigration reform, for instance.


    There are examples, like the Even Start Family Literacy Program, that multiple evaluations over time showed actually had no positive effect on the young people they were trying to boost the literacy rates for.

    And so Congress went on to spend more than a billion dollars over the next eight years on this program. And we think of the opportunity costs and…


    So, sometimes, government should stay out of it?


    Those funds should have been redirected. Eventually, the program was eliminated. It should have been eliminated eight years ago.

    So there are good examples when there are clear — there's clear evidence that a program should be shut down. On immigration, I think we're having, you know, a process debate and a substantive debate.

    And I will leave the process debate aside, but on the substantive side, "Moneyball for Government" would cause us to think about not only how could we secure our border and enforce our immigration laws in a more cost-effective way, but also, how do we bring the millions of people out of the shadows who have been working hard in this country doing jobs that many others wouldn't do, and been law-abiding, and to do it in a way that brings evidence to what's the effect on the economy, what's the effect on local communities, what's the effect on our culture and our heritage?

    And I think that kind of approach could reinvigorate a debate around the substance on immigration policy.


    You're very — you're optimistic that you can talk about the substance, rather than the process, on these — these issues which so tie us up?


    I think evidence is best when, unlike the program he's talking about, we — if that's used, that one's program didn't work, to say, well, let's not worry about helping children who are poor, making sure they get a fair start.

    But if it's used to say, that's a worthy mission, but there are other interventions that were better, then I think that is the right way to use things. Where, in the immigration debate, I think it's been very helpful is, there were a lot of assumptions made that immigrants were going to displace American workers, that immigrants were going to put downward pressure on jobs.

    The overwhelming amount of evidence shows that's not the case. But, now, there are a couple of studies that say maybe it does affect people who don't have a high school education. Well, that wouldn't necessarily mean you would be against immigration, but you might say, as you're doing immigration, that you might want to complement that with increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit or something that might deal with some of the people who are — who might bear some negative consequences.


    Well, at a time when most Americans are pretty pessimistic about what government can and cannot get done, here is an optimistic contribution to the dialogue, "Moneyball for Government."

    Thank you, Gene Sperling and John Bridgeland.


    Thank you, Gwen.


    Thank you.


    Nice to be with you.

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