Washington, D.C., Takes a Scientific Approach to Policy

D.C. has used the results from low-cost, randomized evaluations to improve local government programs and processes

by Stephen Goldsmith / May 17, 2017
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This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

In the past year, Washington, D.C. has dramatically increased its efforts to use low-cost evaluations in policymaking. Boosted by commitments to data-driven decision making from the Mayor and City Administrator, the city launched The Lab @ DC last year. The Lab brings diverse scientific skillsets in house to enable the city to use low-cost interventions and other research methods throughout its operations.

By basing the team in the Office of the City Administrator, The Lab builds on existing relationships, processes, and data infrastructure. Chief Performance Officer Jenny Reed noted that the connection to performance management surfaces ideas and also ensures that the work is tied to the city’s priorities. Lab Director David Yokum said that in order to identify opportunities for low-cost evaluations, “Having scientists inside government is a strength. You really need to know a lot about the agencies, what they are capable of doing, what their budgetary constraints are, what their IT looks like – you need all those pieces to make the scientific judgment of what the opportunities are.” 

The Lab is already embarking on a variety of efforts, including testing redesigned paperwork for applications to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). For a project with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), The Lab designed a randomized controlled trial for the rollout of body-worn cameras. Because the MPD was already planning to distribute the cameras and already collected relevant administrative data, adding in the randomized distribution had an extremely low marginal cost. The randomized trial will allow the city to compare the outcomes for officers with cameras to those without cameras to answer important questions about the technology’s effectiveness. Support from the Behavioral Insights Team through What Works Cities this year will facilitate additional projects.

Yokum said that even doing a small concrete project, such as testing two subject lines for an email, can inspire departments to come back with more ambitious ideas for ways to apply the same methods to other areas. The goal of the team is to support talented employees in all departments and raise the city’s collective capacity to use evidence to drive policy. Although it is still relatively new, The Lab @ DC demonstrates promise to scale to an evidence-driven District government.

This article was originally published on Data-Smart City Solutions.