By David Leonhardt
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 admNinistration 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.
One current trial is evaluating whether federal workplace inspections improve worker safety. Another looks at one-on-one counseling that tries to help low-income students graduate from college. A third trial is examining whether nurses in Durham, N.C., improve infants’ health by visiting them in their homes. The most expensive of these three trials costs just $183,000.
In every case, you can imagine why supporters of the programs would assume that randomized trials weren’t necessary: Officials make an effort to design the programs carefully, and their approach sounds sensible. The policies often mimic ideas that seemed to work in other places. But history tells us that many fail nonetheless.
The new efforts to measure success are an attempt to be more hardheaded about this reality.
“We’re still talking about a really tiny slice of federal social spending,” Jon Baron, the president of Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy in Washington and a longtime advocate for more efficient government, told me. “But there has been important progress. It’s been meaningful.”
Just as intriguing as the various experiments and trials, some existing programs, especially in education and health care, have also taken baby steps toward more rigorous evaluation. One of the most encouraging recent economic trends is the slowdown in the growth of medical costs over the last five years; it springs in part from efforts by policy makers, hospitals, doctors and nurses to figure out which forms of health care improve health and which do not.
None of this work is sexy. Rigorous evaluation, randomized trials and social impact bonds will never stir the political passion that calls for universal health insurance or lower taxes do. If anything, measurement and accountability are destined to provoke more opposition – from interest groups that have something to lose – than support. (This opposition often takes the form of, “Measurement is hard,” as if that were a reason to skip it.)
But in a divided country, where Congress only rarely passes far-reaching legislation, a more effective government may be the best way for both sides to get more of what they want: a government that is limited enough to protect individual freedom and ambitious enough to improve people’s lives.
The United States government has historically been good at the big stuff, from fighting wars to breaking new scientific ground. It’s everything else that tends to present a problem.
A version of this article appears in print on July 15, 2014, on page A3 of the New York edition with the headline: A Quiet Movement to Help Government Falter Less Often.