Many critics have already dismissed the new White House Office of American Innovation, created in March by President Donald Trump and led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The office is Trump’s first attempt to modernize government, but Kushner already has a full portfolio, from negotiating peace in the Middle East to criminal justice reform. Does he really have time to remake government?
We understand the skepticism, but as veterans of the Obama and Bush administrations, we also think the new office has terrific potential to inject a much-needed dose of modernity into government. It will require experimenting with new ideas, building evidence about what works, and using evidence to inform policy decisions. In other words, it will require running the government more like a private-sector business. Kushner may be just the guy for the job.
Regardless of your political affiliation, we should all hope for the office’s success. We need faster progress on key economic and social challenges. Many Americans are understandably frustrated by the pace of progress for themselves and their families. The federal government’s response to problems is often to create new, overlapping, compliance-focused programs, not flexible ones that allow federal, state and local leaders to learn from each other and shift spending to more effective approaches. Success also tends to be defined in terms of spending levels, outputs, or compliance with rules and regulations, not outcomes. There is strong inertia around the status quo.
Don’t get us wrong. Even with these challenges, the government does vital work in health, education, workforce development, criminal justice and safety, housing, antipoverty, infrastructure, the environment and more. Out of the spotlight of national political debates, hundreds of programs serve our citizens, representing hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer investment. But too rarely are those programs required to undergo rigorous evaluations to establish whether they accomplish their goals and are cost-effective—findings that can inform program improvements or shifts in resources to different strategies.
How can the innovation office succeed? It needs to start by creating partnerships across the government, including with the Office of Management and Budget. No one knows the opportunities for improvement within agencies better than OMB’s talented career staff, who interact with every program and management function in government. The innovation office should also work closely with career civil servants within agencies who know first-hand the barriers to change, what has succeeded and failed in the past, and how to give “staying power” to long-overdue reforms. And it should partner with Congress to implement changes that require legislation. Beyond such important relationship building, the innovation office should set its sights on big, bipartisan reforms. We have four suggestions:
1. Embed an innovation fund into every large social program. Innovation funds, also known as tiered-evidence grant programs, bake evidence and innovation into programs. They emphasize funding what works by giving larger grants to approaches backed by stronger evidence and also support innovative field-initiated ideas to addressing policy goals. Just as leading companies use a “skunk works” to develop new products, innovation funds support and test strategies to improve program results. A handful of programs have them today, but the concept deserves expansion. Innovation funds were championed by the Obama administration but were also praised in the House Republicans’ 2016 policy plan, “A Better Way.” A quick win during the first year could be the launch of an innovation fund using existing funds in at least one important social policy area. Examples include addressing the opioid crisis, improving the quality of care and services to veterans, and strengthening early childhood outcomes.
2. Increase the use of waivers in social programs. The government runs hundreds of billions of dollars worth of social programs with strict federal requirements—but can also offer waivers that give states and localities flexibility to design and improve those programs. Waivers can enable jurisdictions to blend funding from multiple programs to better serve specific populations, such as unemployed youth, individuals struggling with opioid addiction, or infants and young children at risk of falling behind before they enter school. They can also allow jurisdictions to try out new strategies for achieving particular policy goals and identify unproductive activities that can be stopped without hurting outcomes. Importantly, any new waiver authority should have safeguards that protect vulnerable populations, and it should require a rigorous program evaluation to determine how well it works.
3. Continue and expand the push to use low-cost, rapid experimentation by agencies. Just as well-known tech companies use rapid experimentation to test new approaches, government can too, using existing resources. For example, the Department of Education ran quick, virtually cost-free tests to see which email messages worked best in reaching borrowers in default on student loans. Within a few weeks, it had the answers. It used that information to help thousands of individuals shift to more manageable repayment plans. The Obama administration created a White House team to help agencies use such “behavioral science” insights, and the Trump administration should continue that effort.
4. Integrate evidence into large formula grant programs. A huge chunk of domestic spending goes to big national programs intended to meet broad social goals, such as the Department of Education’s Title I grants (about $15 billion per year), which aim to improve academic achievement among disadvantaged students, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Block Grants (about $2 billion) administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. But the overwhelming majority of this money flows into programs without any rigorous evidence that they work. Though "evidence-based" policymaking is still a nascent approach, we now know enough about what works, and what doesn’t, to require evidence for more federal spending. The Trump administration and Congress should require an increasing percentage of these dollars be used for approaches backed by rigorous evidence—initially, say, 25 percent of a program’s dollars, rising to half within five years. That would ensure a substantial share of federal spending flows to proven strategies and would create an incentive to evaluate more programs, while still providing jurisdictions with flexibility to develop innovative, field-generated approaches.
In carrying out its work, the new office will have a valuable asset: a growing movement, championed by both Republicans and Democrats, to improve program results and get more “bang for the buck” from federal spending through the use of evidence, data and innovation. The movement has roots in the Bush administration and was expanded by the Obama administration. Its bipartisan support was underscored by the 2016 launch of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, sponsored by Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray.
The new White House Office of American Innovation has the opportunity to build on these efforts. Doing so can help our nation achieve something important: better results at lower cost.
Andrew Feldman is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as a special adviser on the Evidence Team at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration. Robert Shea is a principal at Grant Thornton and serves on the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. He served as the associate director for administration and government performance at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration.