Politics not metrics can tell us what works

13 October 2011

An interesting article by William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, for Tactical Philanthropy that challenges the role of metrics in assessing what works and the effectiveness of interventions. It is particularly relevant for the current debate (is there any?) on the value of impact evaluations and randomised control trials in policy making.

The lessons of Bradley’s involvement in welfare reform were the reverse of what might have been expected. Metrics, the heart of social scientific calibration, have long been understood to be the key to successful policy reform. They are supposed to lift policy discussion out of the bitterly contested realm of political values and local, subjective viewpoints, and put it on the serene plateau of indisputable, objective, universal facts.

No such thing had happened in Wisconsin. Metrics were subsumed into the local political debate rather than the other way around. And a vigorous, face-to-face, fiercely partisan contest about the meaning of “what works” held Bradley accountable to its own community for concrete results, in a way that abstract measurement never could.

Unhappily, many foundations today believe that “effectiveness” requires detachment from immediate, hands-on engagement in the civic life of their own local communities, and tie their grantmaking instead to ever more elaborate, arcane, abstract theories and models. They’ll end up with numbers aplenty. But they still won’t be able to answer the question, “what works?”