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Conference advances use of data and evaluation in policymaking

Government leaders, social service providers, and leading scholars gathered for the second conference of J-PAL North America’s State and Local Innovation Initiative.
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Bill Evans, co-founder of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, discusses the current evidence on strategies to reduce homelessness.
Bill Evans, co-founder of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, discusses the current evidence on strategies to reduce homelessness.
Photo courtesy of J-PAL North America

State and local government leaders, social service providers, and leading scholars gathered in Santa Clara, California, last month to advance the use of data and evaluation in addressing key challenges related to poverty, particularly around homelessness. The event was part of an initiative of J-PAL North America, a research center in MIT’s Department of Economics.

Representatives from 19 jurisdictions gathered for J-PAL North America’s second conference for its State and Local Innovation Initiative, which supports state and local governments in using randomized evaluations to measure the impact of social programs and to answer priority policy questions.

Among the governments that showcased their work were Baltimore, Maryland; King County, Washington; and Santa Clara, California, three governments J-PAL North America is currently partnering with to identify solutions to homelessness.

Santa Clara County District 5 supervisor Joe Simitian opened the event by highlighting why policymaking must be informed by evidence. Simitian acknowledged the political and logistical hurdles in conducting randomized evaluations of social programs, but emphasized that randomized evaluations are an essential tool for effective policymaking, as they allow governments to determine what actually works in reducing poverty and improving lives.

“We’ve got to be rigorous if we really care about the people we say we care about,” said Simitian in his opening remarks. He added that governments have a responsibility to taxpayers to invest in programs that have been proven to work.

Participants then heard from a panel of academics, city government officials, and service providers on how effective government research partnerships are advancing the use of evidence in government. The Lab @ DC discussed a randomized evaluation in partnership with the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department to test the impact of the police department’s body-worn camera program.

Though the evaluation found that cameras had no effect on documented uses of force, Commander Ralph Ennis of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department emphasized how the study has inspired the department to explore the further use of randomized evaluations to assess its programs.

During the second panel of the day, State and Local Innovation Initiative co-chair Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland led a discussion on how to leverage cross-sector partnerships to inform data-driven policy. Panelists agreed that clearly explaining the value of evidence to diverse stakeholders — some of whom may not initially be convinced about the value of randomized evaluations — is key.

“One thing I’ve realized is we’re translators,” explained Tracy Colunga, director of the Innovation Team in Long Beach, California. “We need to take our time to explain [data and evaluation] in concepts and terms that people can connect with.”

Later in the day, participants had the opportunity work through the nuts and bolts of randomization and share their experiences with evaluation. The final panel of the day, moderated by State and Local Innovation Initiative manager Julia Chabrier, discussed ways in which evidence can be leveraged to have tangible impacts on policy.

Day two of the conference honed in on a key policy goal: effective strategies to combat homelessness. Bill Evans, the co-founder of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame, outlined the current evidence on a range of strategies to prevent homelessness. One promising approach that Evans highlighted involves providing low-income families at risk of experiencing homelessness with targeted, limited financial assistance that aims to keep people housed.

Jennifer Loving, whose nonprofit Destination Home — based in Santa Clara — is partnering with J-PAL North America to evaluate their homelessness prevention strategies, pushed participants to move beyond existing frameworks for thinking about homelessness prevention. Loving argued that a data-driven approach is both effective at reducing homelessness as well as cost-effective for resource-constrained state and local governments.

“For 30 years we’ve looked at homelessness as a charity model,” explained Loving. “Not only is that wrong, but it’s cost us a billion dollars. We can create a solution where people can say yes to finding the solution, but we can only do it if we can prove it.”

This year’s State and Local Innovation Initiative conference provided a valuable opportunity for government officials, researchers, and service providers to gather together and share how evidence has helped inform their solutions to challenging social issues. To learn more about topics covered at the conference, see video clips from our speakers, and receive updates on the J-PAL State and Local Innovation Initiative, visit J-PAL’s conference website.

Please direct questions about the initiative to Julia Chabrier.

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