BetaGov Blog


Policies Under Construction

Road blocks with hazard lights

Date:   January 19, 2017

Working in a leadership position at a human services agency is a unique experience. These organizations are typically quite large, as state agencies go, and responsible for important safety-net programs like foster care, means-tested welfare and child support. Moreover, human services agencies tend to change leadership roughly every year and a half. Given the size, significance and span confronted by human services agency leaders, it's no wonder that they feel like they're trying to build a sandcastle under the shadow of a tidal wave. This is the environment in which human services agency leaders attempt to accomplish meaningful, positive and lasting policy change.

While all human services agency leaders will work to implement policy changes for a variety of reasons (Governor's initiative, common sense reform, etc.), there are some changes that just never get made. It could be that there's not enough time to implement ("By the time we get that done, there will be a new administration and we'll be long gone"). Maybe the outcomes will be dubious. Unfortunately, new and creative ideas don't come in pre-wrapped boxes with evidence-based seals of approval stamped on them. Or perhaps the idea is still being tested. The typical timeline from birth of an idea, through the funding cycle, to study completion is seven years.

This is the sweet spot where BetaGov and its growing band of Pracademics work their magic. BetaGov helps staff in agencies across the country test their ideas with fast, cheap, and rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs). RCTs reveal to these idea-producing human services agency staff members whether their ideas are dandies or duds, and without making them wait until their successors have replaced them and started thinking about moving on themselves! Of course, RCTs don't always show that an idea is a good one, but that piece of knowledge in itself is a great discovery. Thomas Edison went through over 10,000 prototypes of a light bulb before getting it right. He later remarked about the experience:

"I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work."

RCTs accomplish this for human services agencies without breaking the bank or running out the clock. With a hat tip to Mr. Edison, RCTs essentially provide more light than heat, which can be a rare thing in this business.

Kansas DCF has used the professional assistance provided by BetaGov to find out, for example, whether a welfare benefits application design was causing logistical problems because of the location of the signature page. It turned out to be a relatively insignificant issue that was easily fixed. Lesson learned. Another RCT helped Kansas DCF discover whether alternative methods of outreach to employers helped increase new hire reporting and, thus, child support collections.

This is how BetaGov is working to help human services agency leaders and staff make policy changes that work and help to identify those that don't. In a manner of speaking, RCTs help human services agencies quickly build less expensive, better, stronger sandcastles much faster than before. Doing things this way leaves the beach changed for the better, even after the tidal wave hits.