IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

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

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.


Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.
Special Projects
Sponsored Articles
  • Sponsored
    After being hampered by legacy technologies and siloed systems while also experiencing a surge in demand for public services during the pandemic, many state and local agencies are now adopting cloud-based technologies and services to accelerate modernization.
  • Sponsored
    The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in state and local government, as organizations quickly pivoted to stand up a remote work infrastructure and enhance digital service delivery.
  • Sponsored
    Bus transit will play a vital role in reviving city economies in the post-pandemic era. But in order to maintain safe, reliable and efficient bus service, cities must ensure dedicated bus lanes remain clear from illegally parked vehicles. Innovative computer vision technology, aided by machine learning, is making it easier than ever for cities to enforce parking and keep buses running on time.
  • Sponsored
    At Fujitsu, we believe that digital transformation in the public sector should be about delivering wider access to services, support and information.