Basing decisions on evidence, not politics

Considering how often we are promised “effective” policy or political plans that “work”, there’s surprisingly little effort spent measuring that effectiveness.

Or maybe it’s not surprising at all. For some politicians, laws and policy are an expression of ideology. In that situation, there will be resistance to any evidence that a particular policy isn’t having the desired effect (or is perhaps working too well). That’s why I’m grateful for organizations like the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).

In this week’s episode of E Hana Kakou, I spoke with Mary Ann Bates, the Deputy Director of J-PAL North America at MIT. What she told me demonstrated the fundamental difference between what happens when you ask a bunch of politicians to help solve poverty versus asking a group of researchers to do so.

In short, J-PAL works to evaluate the efficacy of programs in categories like health, finance, and education. They challenge the assumptions that underlie policy decisions and help determine how to effectively allocate resources to make the greatest impact.

For example, Mary Ann spoke of an evaluation of the use of bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria in Africa. Some had theorized that requiring people to pay a small fee for the bed nets (as opposed to giving them away free) would result in better and more consistent use. That assumption was bolstered by anecdotes about people misusing the free nets for clothing and fishing. But a comparative study found that those assumptions were wrong–those who received the nets for free were just as likely to use them properly as those who paid.

We’re no less susceptible to the use of anecdote as data in our own policy making. During the minimum wage debate, we were often given the example of a poor parent struggling to feed her family on minimum wage to justify a sharp minimum wage increase. What was missing was the real data on who makes minimum wage and how those jobs would be affected by a new law.

Or consider education. J-PAL has found a correlation between higher test scores and linking teacher pay to attendance. Providing incentives for higher test scores themselves, however, led to the possibility that teachers would only “teach to the test.” Given the constant requests for more education funding in Hawaii, it would be useful to spend more time looking for positive evidence of what works.

Organizations like J-PAL acknowledge a practical reality that politicians are loathe to admit (at least during campaign time). Resources, whether in government dollars or in aid funding, are limited. Therefore, it makes sense to determine which policies are a good use of our resources and which are a waste. If only we can persuade people to let go of their prior assumptions and consider the evidence.

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