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Photo by J. David Ake/The Associated Press

Houston — As part of its effort to ensure that government services are delivered in the most efficient and impactful way, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) is providing funding support for a unique competition conducted by the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy. The competition is designed to identify and test programs that could help to effectively address social problems. It will select and fund between seven and nine low-cost randomized-controlled trials (RCTs) for up to $100,000 per trial over the next three years. The studies will help build evidence about “what works” by rigorously testing promising programs and highlighting those that are shown to make a difference.

Applicants are invited to submit RCT proposals related to any area of domestic social policy. The plans will be reviewed by a panel of experts, and finalists will be invited to a workshop with organizations that help direct social spending.

“This competition is part of LJAF’s efforts to encourage government to incorporate rigorous research and evaluation into decision making,” LJAF Vice President of Public Accountability Josh McGee explained. “If government spending is to have the greatest possible impact, we need to learn more about what works and what doesn’t. RCTs are the best way to do that, as they can help government programs move towards greater efficiency and effectiveness.”

RCTs have been used to evaluate a wide range of social programs, from substance abuse treatment to parenting assistance initiatives to efforts to protect public safety. One recent example is a study that looked at Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE), a high-intensity supervision program that provides swift and certain sanctions for a probation violation. The study found the program reduced probationers’ likelihood of re-arrest by 55 percent and the number of days in jail by 48 percent. The HOPE RCT cost approximately $150,000, a fraction of the usual multi-million-dollar cost of a large experiment. Researchers were able to keep costs down by using arrest and incarceration records from the state. HOPE is frequently recognized among the most important recent advances in criminal justice. It has been replicated across the nation and was recently named one of the “Top 25 Innovations in Government” by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“Government and philanthropic organizations fund a vast array of program services, but only a tiny fraction are ever rigorously evaluated to see if they produce the hoped-for improvement in people’s lives,” said Jon Baron, who heads the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C. “Low-cost RCTs can dramatically increase the number of program strategies that are tested, so as to more rapidly grow the number proven to work.”

Additional funding support for the competition is provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Interested applicants must submit a letter of interest to the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy by February 14, and grants will be awarded in June. More information about the competition is available on the Coalition’s website.