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.