Using Science in Government

Two recent events highlighted the Seattle City Council’s efforts to focus on evidence-based programs and decisions.

On Friday, December 7, 2012 Seattle’s Office of City Auditor organized a forum in City Hall where University of Washington professors presented research on various topics relevant for city policymakers, from transportation to crime to human services. Then on December 10, researchers from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University briefed the Council on several crime prevention efforts underway to make Seattle neighborhoods safer.

Using science and data to guide government investments and programs is smart government. You’d think that would be obvious and readily accepted. Think again.

Writing in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Jon Baron, president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, lifted the rug to reveal a few awkward facts.

“Despite a myriad of new government programs and spending over the last 40 years, the system has failed to improve economic and social well-being for an astonishingly large segment of the American population…

“Census Bureau data show that over the last 40 years, average yearly income of the bottom 40% of U.S. households—now at $20,221—has changed little after adjusting for inflation.

“In education, although the college graduation rate has risen, the high school graduation rate peaked around 81% in the early 1970s. Since then, it has been stuck between 75% and 80%. Department of Education data show that reading and math achievement of 17-year-olds—the end product of our K-12 education system—has not improved over 40 years, despite a 90% rise in public spending per student.”

Baron suggests that we take a lesson from medicine and get serious about using science to guide decisions on how best to allocate tax dollars. Over the past 50 years, the death rate from coronary heart disease and childhood cancers has dropped by half due in large part to the rigor of scientific inquiry, testing and evaluation.

What if we brought that scientific rigor to government-funded programs? It just might allow us to do more good by moving funds from programs that don’t work to programs that do.

My colleagues and I have been providing leadership on this issue for several years. In our most recent budget decisions in November, we increased funding for the City Auditor so more program evaluations could be completed. We set new city policy requiring performance measures and evaluations for new or significantly expanded programs. And, we expanded the Nurse Family Partnership, perhaps the nation’s most studied, evaluated and outcome-focused early childhood intervention.

Nurse Family Partnership is a public health program that sends specially trained nurses into the homes of low-income, first time moms twice a month. The visits begin early in pregnancy and continue until the child is two years of age. It works. Reported incidents of child abuse, neglect and injury are reduced as much as 50%. The economic stability of the family is improved. Education outcomes for both mom and child are improved. Criminal justice system involvement by both mom and child (measured until the child reaches age 15) is dramatically reduced.

Because of the Seattle City Council’s budget decision to fully fund the Nurse Family Partnership, Seattle will become just the third major U.S. city to make the program available to all moms who qualify. We’re investing early to reap huge dividends.

Measuring outcomes, reviewing the evidence of what works and doesn’t work, and then applying this knowledge to policy decisions could transform the social and economic landscape for many people. As Baron argues in his New York Times piece, let’s make evidence the driver of government spending decisions.


Tim Burgess, is a Seattle City Councilmember, Chair of the Government Performance and Finance Committee, and Chair of the Budget Committee.

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