Replicating Successful Government Interventions

According to Stuart M. Butler and David B. Mulhausen, it is not easy.

the task of mimicking and scaling up programs that work is not so straightforward. Success is never a simple matter of easily traceable cause and effect, and even the people who have achieved a breakthrough often cannot pinpoint exactly what worked and why. Social outcomes have an impossibly complex array of causes, and the circumstances that characterize one place are rarely identical — and are often not even very similar — to those found elsewhere. A seemingly successful preschool program in Chicago may fail in Atlanta, even if it is reproduced virtually identically, because of differences, both large and small, between the two cities.

I think that a big problem is that success can be mis-measured in the first place. For example, the authors write,

Early-childhood education offers a good example of such pitfalls. Head Start, a federal program that funds preschool initiatives for the poor, was based on a modest number of small-scale, randomized experiments showing positive cognitive outcomes associated with preschool intervention. These limited evaluations helped trigger expenditures of over $200 billion since 1965. Yet the scaled-up national program never underwent a thorough, scientifically rigorous evaluation of its effectiveness until Congress mandated a study in 1998. Even then, the publication of the study’s results (documenting the program’s effects as measured in children in kindergarten, first grade, and third grade) was delayed for four years after data collection was completed. When finally released, the results were disappointing, with almost all of the few, modest benefits associated with Head Start evaporating by kindergarten. It seems the program had been running for decades without achieving all that much. Worse yet, the scant evidence of success has not stopped Head Start’s budget from continuing to swell: The program cost $8 billion last year.

In the private sector, if a firm gets off to a promising start but then founders, it sinks. Government programs keep right on going. This is one of the issues that I will be raising when I discuss a new book at Cato on Thursday. I will offer an even more pessimistic take than the authors of the article or the author of the book.

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10 Responses to Replicating Successful Government Interventions

  1. loveactuary says:

    I hope Jeff Sachs reads this blog …

  2. Yancey Ward says:

    It seems the program had been running for decades without achieving all that much. Worse yet, the scant evidence of success has not stopped Head Start’s budget from continuing to swell: The program cost $8 billion last year.

    The program achieved exactly the goal its supporters in Congress wanted- the expenditure of $200 billion since 1965 employing professional constituents and political donors.

  3. R Richard Schweitzer says:

    Perhaps “success” of “government” (bureaucratic) intervention is taken to occur when there is no identifiable or traceable cause of harm.

    During the event of your review at Cato, hopefully someone will point out that what are being identified as “government failures” are actually failures of the **bureaucracies** that comprise the Federal Administrative State and which attempt to use the constitutionally delineated mechanisms of government for functions that are not within those delineations; thereby “overloading” and overriding the delineated functions, producing observable fiscal fractures initially, and other fragmentation that has been appearing slowly, but is accelerating.

    The failures are bureaucratic, not governmental. We have permitted the establishment of an additional separate form of “governance” (but not government) with the creation of the Federal Administrative State.

  4. mike shupp says:

    Okay, I’m hand waving here, but my memory is studies have been coming out for years — since Reagan days if not earlier — saying essentially that Head Start has a beneficial effort for a couple of years for children but by 3rd or 4th grade kids who have Head Start experiences and kids who haven’t learn equally well. so the early perceived value of Head Start doesn’t last. Of course these were probably one-city or one-state comparisons, rather than the national testing done in the 1990s. but the evidence was accumulating.

    The problem is, legislators are afraid to challenge HS funding for fear it will make them look “anti-child” to their constituents, and this applies to both the most left-wing liberals and the furthest right conservatives.

  5. drycreekboy says:

    If you follow this subject it may occur to you that Head Start/Pre-K programs are likely become to the Left what public-school abstinence programs were to certain parts of the Right ten years ago: a passionately held idea desperately in search of any scrap of data to justify public expenditure on its behalf, and coming up mostly empty.

    • andrew' says:

      What is “public school abstinence” and did it really hinge on public funding?

      • andrew' says:

        Ha! I thought you were making a dig at homeschooling.

        Sex abstinence I assume was mainly a reaction to de facto sex promotion to ridiculously young students against parents wishes, which I’m sure had mountains of supporting data.

        • drycreekboy says:

          Totally agree with the point you’re making, and I’m very sympathetic to homeschoolers. Just think public schools (as presently constituted anyway) are a poor vessel to transmit ethics, culture, morality, etc.

          As the author of this blog likes to say, exit over voice.

          • djf says:

            Whether abstinence programs accomplished anything or not, their cost was no doubt trivial (since the kids were in school anyway) compared to Head Start and Pre-K.

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