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January 18, 2019

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Results matter more than good intentions

In his book “Show Me the Evidence: Obama’s Fight for Rigor and Results in Social Policy,” Ron Haskins described a quiet revolution that took place during the Obama administration in the way that social service programs were evaluated and funded.

Haskins, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who co-wrote the 2014 book with colleague Greg Margolis, said the Obama team’s innovation was to fund initiatives based on rigorous results-based evidence. The approach can be summed up in the phrase, “If you want the money, show me the evidence.”

During a presentation tonight at UNLV, Haskins will outline several examples of programs that arose from the new approach and explain why the tools and methods developed by the Obama administration remain valuable for policymakers today.

Although the programs received little attention outside of the social service community and policy wonks, Haskins said they marked a radical departure for the federal government. Before, he said, programs were evaluated largely on anecdotal evidence or studies that weren’t based on solid research techniques.

“Something most Americans don’t know, which is probably a good thing, is that our social programs do not work. They are massive failures,” Haskins said during an interview Tuesday at UNLV. “And we didn’t really know that because we heard from program operators and school superintendents and others who run the programs how good they are. But then we started doing very careful evaluations, called random assignment evaluations, in which you assign young people at random to an experimental control group.”

The results of those evaluations, Haskins said, showed that many programs produced neutral results. Some, like the former Drug Abuse Resistance Education, which was so popular and was believed to be so effective that it was taught in 75 percent of schools nationwide, were even shown to have negative effects.

In his presentation tonight, Haskins will describe the challenges President Barack Obama faced in establishing the evidence-based programs, and how his team overcame them.

Haskins was a longtime staff member on the House Ways and Means Committee and served as George W. Bush’s senior adviser for welfare policy.

His one-hour presentation, which is free to the public, begins at 6 p.m. in the first-floor auditorium at Greenspun Hall.