Evidence-Based Public Policy: An Aspirational Vision
As I write this essay in the United States, we are celebrating Black History Month and in January we had a national holiday recognizing Martin Luther King, a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement. In King's famous 1963 speech in Washington, D.C., he talked about having a dream of what America could become. I also have a dream, of what public policy and public management could, and should, become. I want to briefly describe that dream, illustrate what it might be, and speak of some of the barriers we need to overcome to make that dream a reality.
March, 26 2007 | Jeffrey Pfeffer
About a year ago Bob Sutton and I published a book on evidence-based management. Evidence-based management is not about learning statistics or collecting enormous reams of data, although understanding statistical inference and collecting facts are incredibly useful activities. Evidence-based management is mostly about a mind-set or perspective on how senior leaders, in both public and private sector organizations, should think about their task. First of all, leaders need to encourage experimentation: It is only by trying different things that we learn. At Yahoo, instead of sitting around debating what website design would drive more users to stay on the site longer and click on advertisements, the company tries different innovations with different visitors to the site, and sees what actually works.
Leaders need to encourage learning from these experiments and the experience of everyone inside their organizations; and learning from experience requires taking time to revisit past decisions and actions and being open to admitting problems and setbacks. Many times organizations make decisions about policies and practices but then fail to learn from those decisions because they don't invest enough time in thinking about what worked, what didn't work, and why. Leaders need to encourage people to tell the truth and to face the facts, even though the truth and the facts may be unpleasant and even though facts and truth are often contested and open to interpretation. In short, leaders and their organizations need to base decisions about policy on the best evidence currently available and not on beliefs or ideology, casual benchmarking, what they or others have done in the past and seems to have worked (their experience) nor on what is being advocated in the press, particularly if what is being advocated is not based on evidence.
I see remarkably little interest in evidence-based management in many public organizations. So, for instance, in the United States, public schools are not doing what they need to do to educate people who can compete in the modern economy. The overall high school graduation rate is estimated to be about 70%, and in urban school districts, it is lower. The solution that has been prescribed (incentive pay for teachers) is premised on a belief that teacher motivation is a big problem and that financial incentives will help to both attract and motivate teachers. However, research on about 100 years of experience with incentive pay in schools demonstrates its ineffectiveness. Nor is this surprising. Teachers don't choose their career for financial rewards, student learning is based on the school environment and what parents do, not just on teacher behavior, and teacher skill, not just motivation, matters for learning outcomes; and skill is not as directly affected by incentives.
A similarly dismal situation exists in the criminal justice system. As documented by Frank Domurad, systematic and thorough evaluation systems are virtually nonexistent in the domains of probation and parole, in part because people don't want to hear bad news. The "get tough" movement in the U.S. is based on ideology, not on data. One study of almost 400,000 offenders found that punitive sanctions increased recidivism. Another study of juveniles found that the more severe the sanction meted out, the more likely it would be that the person would engage in subsequent law-breaking activity.
As described in the website, we have begun to encourage evidence-based management in all domains (www.evidence-basedmanagement.com), the United Kingdom has encouraged the gathering and use of evidence in public policy formulation and implementation. But such efforts are exceedingly rare.
We should hold ourselves and our private- and public-vsector executives to the same standards that we hold our physicians, who are expected to know the relevant medical evidence and use that knowledge in their practice. To the extent that we encourage our organizations to practice evidence-based management, we will learn more and will translate that learning into action. By so doing, a dream of improving the lives of people who work in organizations and those who are touched by them will become a reality.
Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.
 Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006.
 Richard J. Murnane and David K. Cohen, Merit Pay and the Evaluation Problem: Why Merit Pay Plans Fail and a Few Survive,vHarvard Educational Review, 56 (1983).
 Frank Domurad, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil:vThe Ethical Imperative of Evidence-Based Practices, Community Corrections Report, Vol. 13, #1 (November-December, 2005).