Going Beyond Rhetoric to Advance the Conversation on Evidence

Mar 28, 2019

Aerial view of Nationals Park and the surrounding neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith and the Library of Congress.
Aerial view of Nationals Park and the surrounding neighborhood in Washington, DC.
Photo Courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith and the Library of Congress.

In my 30 years at Mathematica, I’ve seen the evidence-based policy movement grow and shift and grow again, and there’s little question we’ve made notable progress in using evidence to improve public well-being. But with increased awareness of the potential of evidence comes increased expectations about what it can do. All too often, we hear political rhetoric from both sides of the aisle about investing in what works and ending what doesn’t. Although that might make for a handy talking point, the hard truth is that answers are rarely easy.

That’s a tough pill to swallow for many policymakers and practitioners alike, whose windows for getting things right are seemingly ever shrinking. Diving into the biggest policy questions with the potential to impact millions of lives requires close examination of the best available evidence from a complex array of multiple sources. Even so, these debates are too big to think that you can read a report or two, no matter how well done, and believe that that you now have the “right” answer. Rather, the important part is that you walk away having more clarity about what can be done, how to make it happen, and where to go next.

But it is precisely because there are not simple answers that makes doing the research, uncovering the evidence, and sharing it broadly with those in positions to make positive changes all the more important.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been a longtime member and a past president of the Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPAM). APPAM’s deep connection to improving public policy and management sets it apart from many other associations that are more geared toward a specific field. Improving policy and management is baked into the origin of the organization, and this focus helps keep APPAM at the center of what’s happening in the policy sphere every day.

In the era of instant access to endless information from around the world, academic journals have faced some difficult headwinds—much of which was by their own doing. Many journals haven’t exactly kept up with the times (or their reader’s attention spans), and rather than helping to disseminate information, far too many have become gatekeepers of evidence rather than platforms for sharing it.

But when done right, peer-reviewed journals remain one of the best ways to uncover evidence and advance the conversation on policy debates that touch all aspects of our lives. So when I had the opportunity to take over as editor of the long-running Point/Counterpoint column of APPAM’s quarterly journal this fall, I jumped at the chance to do so.

My hope is that by asking compelling voices to present interesting perspectives on timely policy debates, we can dig deeper than political rhetoric would usually allow, and instead unearth and present evidence that advances the conversation about what to do next.

There is growing consensus that criminal justice reform is badly needed in the United States to address issues of prison overcrowding, improve reentry programs, and reduce recidivism. Yet specific policy proposals continue to be drawn along sharp ideological lines. In reality, we can learn a great deal from what the evidence tells us, but doing so requires a much closer examination than many are willing to make.

For the most recent Point/Counterpoint column, I asked two thoughtful justice researchers to look at the evidence on whether the availability of wraparound services improved the effectiveness of prisoner reentry programs. Texas A&M University’s Jennifer Doleac concluded that these services lead to more intensive involvement of case managers, but that this might actually do as much harm as good for people exiting the justice system. Meanwhile, the Urban Institute’s Janeen Buck Willison found that these seemingly mixed results can serve to strengthen how these programs are designed and operated and ultimately increase the chances that wraparound services promote positive reentry outcomes.

These two conclusions are not necessarily at odds. As is often the case, listening to the same evidence can lead us to a nuanced appreciation for what’s really being said. In this case, it is critical to understand both the potential positive effects of intensive case management services and their unintended consequences when adding evidence to the debate on concrete next steps for criminal justice reform.

Last fall, in my first issue at the helm of Point/Counterpoint, we tackled public financing of sports stadiums. This has become an incredibly contentious and costly concern, as team owners have used the threat of relocation to extract more and more subsidies from taxpayers. Brad Humphries from West Virginia University argued that not only does the research fail to identify the tangible economic benefits generated by stadiums, there is growing evidence that stadiums also generate additional local crime, pollution, and congestion. Victor Matheson at the College of the Holy Cross meanwhile found that although it’s likely that the economic benefits are not high enough to justify subsidizing the full construction costs associated with new stadiums, there are benefits, including strategic opportunities to drive development in targeted neighborhoods, that could make some level of public investment worthwhile.

In future editions, I’m interested in looking at other policy issues that would benefit from a deeper dive and a breadth of perspectives, including emerging evidence on charter schools, gun violence, immigration’s impact on labor markets, and the gender wage gap.

The promise of evidence-based policy rests on producing high quality, rigorous evidence and making it accessible and actionable to those who can use it. As an advocate for evidence, as a researcher, and as the president and CEO of Mathematica, I want to do everything I can to ensure that we are not only exploring new ways to collect and analyze evidence, but also thinking of new ways to package and disseminate it. I hope you’ll take a minute to read the columns each quarter, and I trust you’ll come away with a better understanding of what’s at stake and what can be done.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of Mathematica.

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