Social workers in schools always boost student outcomes. Drug offenders shouldn’t be treated differently. Malaria bed nets are more likely to be used if people pay for them. Seeing inside a jail will deter juvenile delinquents from becoming criminals.
All four statements sound perfectly sensible, don’t they? Unfortunately, randomised trials suggest that all four are perfectly wrong. Let me explain.
In Britain, pilots of social workers in schools showed that everyone liked the idea. Teachers, social workers and students all liked it. Then researchers at Cardiff and Oxford Universities ran a two‑year randomised trial across 300 schools to test the impact. The results, reported this year, showed no significant positive impact (Westlake et al 2023). As a result, the planned national rollout has now been scrapped (Molloy 2023).
In New South Wales, a randomised trial of the Drug Court showed that a tailored approach to drug offenders reduced recidivism (Lind et al 2002). By treating their addiction, they became much less likely to reoffend than if they had been sentenced through the traditional criminal justice system. Drug courts don’t just help addicts – they also make the streets safer.
In Africa, some economists argued that free anti‑malarial bed nets would not be valued by villagers, and might be used instead as makeshift fishing nets. So a randomised trial tested the takeup and use of free versus cheap bednets. It turned out that free bednets were far more popular, and equally likely to be used (Cohen and Dupas 2010). As the results of the randomised trials became clear, the World Health Organization switched its policy to favour free distribution of bed nets. The results of the experiment save thousands of lives every year.
In the United States, a policy known as ‘Scared Straight’ grew out of an Academy Award winning documentary. Juvenile offenders were brought into jails for a day, where they met hardened adult criminals. Low‑quality evaluations – comparing those who took up the program with those who chose not to participate – suggested that it cut crime by up to half. But randomised trials told a different story: suggesting that participating in Scared Straight made youths substantially more likely to offend (Petrosino et al 2013).
What these four examples have in common is that they used a randomised trial to evaluate the impact of a policy. Randomised trials have a long history in medicine, going back to James Lind’s randomised trials of scurvy treatments in 1747, which helped save the lives of thousands of sailors. In the 1940s, randomised trials showed that antibiotics did not cure the common cold. In the 1950s, randomised trials showed that the polio vaccine was safe and effective.
Randomised trials helped drive the transformation from ‘eminence‑based medicine’ to ‘evidence‑based medicine’. Until the end of the late‑nineteenth century, dangerous treatments such as bloodletting meant that doctors probably killed more patients than they saved. Even in the early twentieth century, Bayer was marketing heroin as a cough suppressant. Randomised trials helped bring a what‑works philosophy to medicine.
Every good evaluation has a good counterfactual
Evaluations seek to answer a range of questions. For example, it is important to know whether a spending program was delivered on time, on budget, and as intended. For new programs and small scale pilots, it is also valuable to seek views from participants or service providers that could help address any weaknesses in the program design and implementation. After all, good new policies often under‑perform due to poor implementation.
While these questions are important, they can’t tell us whether a program works, for whom, why, or in what circumstances. And to determine what works, every evaluation – whether we’re talking medicine or policy – is trying to do one simple thing: figure out the counterfactual. What would have happened if you didn’t take the pill, or didn’t participate in the program? This is what we get to see in the movie Sliding Doors, when we follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s two possible lives, according to whether or not she catches the train. It’s what you got as a kid when you re‑read a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
In real life, we only get to see one version of reality, so we need to construct the alternative. Randomised trials do this by tossing a coin. Heads, you’re in the treatment group. Tails, you’re in the control group. Because luck determines whether you get the treatment, the two groups are equivalent at the outset. So any difference we see between them must be due to the intervention.
Low‑quality evaluations sometimes construct the counterfactual by assuming that a person’s outcomes would have remained unchanged in the absence of the intervention. This can end up giving too much credit to the program. Most sick patients eventually get better. Most schoolchildren eventually get smarter. Most regions eventually grow. So any evaluation that assumes the world would otherwise have remained static is likely to produce a flawed result.
Jon Baron, who runs the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy, recently produced an example of this problem, based on results from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Comprehensive Child Development Program, which provided intensive case management services to low‑income families with young children.
Over the five years of the program, employment rates for mothers in the program doubled. Which sounds impressive, until you realise that the study also had a randomly selected control group. Whose employment rates also doubled over the same period. As Jon Baron notes ‘If the Comprehensive Child Development Program had been evaluated in the usual non‑rigorous way (examining employment outcomes without reference to a control group), it would’ve been deemed highly effective.’ In reality, the program had no measurable effect on employment outcomes.
Problems also arise from evaluations that compare those who sign up for a program with those that do not. The kinds of parents who enrol their children in after‑school tutoring are likely to be different from those that leave them to their own devices. The workers who choose job training are likely to be different from those that do not. In the early days of the COVID pandemic, a non‑randomised study suggested that hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment (Gautret et al 2020). Subsequent randomised trials showed that it was not (Pathak et al 2020).
This so‑called ‘selection effect’ afflicts whole areas of social science. Thousands of studies have been published that compare health outcomes for people who choose to eat one kind of food instead of another. Increasingly, we’re realising that this kind of study reveals a lot about the kinds of people who eat certain foods, but very little about the foods themselves.
Health writers Peter Attia and Bill Gifford point out that ‘our food choices and eating habits are unfathomably complex’, so observational studies are almost always ‘hopelessly confounded’ (Attia and Gifford 2023, 300). In other words, health studies based on comparing people who choose to eat different things may be as junky as a supersized burger with fries.
A better approach is that adopted by the US National Institutes of Health, which is conducting randomised nutrition studies. These require volunteers to live in a dormitory‑style setting, where their diets are randomly changed from week to week. Nutritional randomised trials are costlier than nutritional epidemiology, but they have one big advantage: we can believe the results. They inform us about causal impacts, not mere correlations.
And in case you’re wondering what this means for claims that a daily glass of wine makes you live longer, feel free to ask me in the Q&A.
Changing the world is harder than you think
Rigorous evaluation is more likely to show up failure. A study published last year analysed ten different job training programs in the United States (Juras et al 2022). Each program was evaluated in a sizeable randomised trial tracking earnings. After six years, only one program, yearUp, had a positive impact on earnings.
As the study points out, a lot needs to go right for a training program to boost earnings. It must have a sufficient impact on the credentials earned, those credentials must have labour market value, and the participants must find jobs. Training programs can fail because participants don’t complete their studies, because the credentials have low economic returns, or because participants don’t move into employment. The yearUp program produced a substantial wage return (around US$7000 a year), suggesting that it’s possible to thread the needle. But nine out of ten programs did not perform on this outcome.
In education, the Coalition for Evidence‑Based Policy analysed the randomised trials commissioned by the US Institute of Education Sciences and found that just one in ten had produced positive effects (Coalition for Evidence‑Based Policy, 2013).
The problem is not confined to the public sector. The area where randomised trials are now most accepted is in the evaluation of new pharmaceuticals. In most advanced nations, getting public funding for a new drug requires that it go through Phase I, II and III clinical trials. Only one in ten drugs that look promising in the laboratory make it through all three phases and onto the market (Hay et al 2014).
Another example from the business sector is Google, which – like many other successful companies – is constantly conducting randomised trials. Google estimates that just one‑fifth of these randomised trials help them improve the product (Thomke 2013).
These findings illustrate Rossi’s Law, coined by sociologist Peter Rossi, which states that ‘the better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero’ (Rossi 1987).
This isn’t because high quality evaluation is cruel – it’s because it’s telling us the truth – designing programs that work better than what exists today is hard.
The people looking to improve education, medicine and internet search are smart, thoughtful and hardworking. They have access to a huge body of literature, and oceans of data. When they produce a new intervention, they’re probably confident that it works, and tempted to put it straight into the market.
The fact that failure is more common than success does not suggest that program designers are foolish or careless, but that they’re grappling with problems that are really, really difficult.
In the face of major challenges, low‑quality evaluation is a hinderance, not a help. Using dodgy impact evaluation techniques is like doing your running training with a slow watch. It might make you feel like you’re fleet‑footed, but when it comes to race day, you’ll eventually be shown up.
That’s why researchers in areas such as pharmaceutical development are committed to using randomised trials. They recognise the importance of accurately evaluating new treatments. They know that poor evaluation of medical treatments can cost money and lives.
In the face of hard problems, we must bring more than a crash‑or‑crash‑through mentality. We need to show up with a willingness to rigorously evaluate those solutions. We need to bring enough modesty to the task to acknowledge that answers which sound right may not always work in the real world. To generate and sustain a culture of continual learning, we need to be open to being proven wrong, and to use that information to do better the next time. We need to accept honest feedback – not pretend to get by with a dodgy wristwatch.
The Australian Centre for Evaluation
That’s why we announced in the 2023 budget that the Albanese Government will create the Australian Centre for Evaluation. Beginning with an annual budget of around $2 million, the centre’s 14 staff members will work across the Australian Government and beyond to improve evaluation capabilities, practices and culture. A core role for the centre will be to champion high‑quality impact evaluations, such as randomised policy trials.
Past reports have clearly shown the need to improve the quality of evaluation across government. Work done for the Thodey Review of the public sector found that the quality of evaluation was ‘piecemeal’. Some high‑quality evaluations have been conducted, including by the Behavioural Economics Team in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. But in many other areas, the capacity to conduct rigorous evaluation is lacking.
A report from the Australian Evaluation Society estimates that in 2021‑22, the Commonwealth procured 224 evaluations from external consultants, at a total cost of $52 million (Australian Evaluation Society 2023). However, because not all commissioned evaluations can be identified, this is likely to significantly underestimate the total volume of external evaluations commissioned from consultants by the Commonwealth.
One problem for consultants is that there isn’t much incentive to undertake a high‑quality evaluation. If Rossi’s Law is right, then the better that consultants design their evaluation, the less likely they are to produce a report that shows the program worked. Which may make it harder for them to win the next contract.
That’s why we’re also encouraging agencies to rebuild their own in‑house evaluation capabilities and consider partnering with the Australian Centre for Evaluation to carry out high‑quality evaluations – an insourcing approach that’s consistent with the way that Finance Minister Katy Gallagher is operating across the Australian Government.
Another reason that consultants’ evaluations may fall short is if they are commissioned to produce evaluations late in the process when there is insufficient planning and data available. So the Australian Centre for Evaluation will also be working with government agencies to strengthen evaluation planning, especially in new budget proposals, and ensure that evaluation is considered at all stages of policy and not seen as an afterthought.
While the Australian Centre for Evaluation will operate across government, it won’t be compelling agencies to participate in evaluation partnerships. A high‑quality evaluation isn’t like an audit, which can be conducted after the program has been rolled out. Good evaluation needs to be built into program design from the outset, which means working collaboratively with the departments that are deploying the programs. We will be complementing high‑quality impact evaluations with other culturally safe evaluation methods that help us to understand the lived experiences of Australians and deliver better services.
Over recent months, I’ve met with many of my ministerial colleagues to discuss which programs might be suitable for evaluation, and how we can drive higher standards of evidence to support decision‑making. Similar discussions are taking place at a public service level between the Australian Centre for Evaluation and other agencies, including the BETA team in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
We’re working to change the old stereotype of randomised trials as slow and expensive, while ensuring relevant ethical, cultural and privacy considerations are at the centre of our thinking. Sure, blockbuster randomised trials such as Perry Preschool and the RAND Health Insurance Experiment took many years and cost many millions. But it’s also possible to do things much more simply.
Tossing a coin ‑ cheaply
We’re not the first to think about the power of quick, simple policy trials to identify what works. In 2014, President Obama convened a White House conference on low‑cost randomised trials. The result was a competition funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that called for proposals to conduct simple, economical randomised trials, costing between US$100,000 and US$300,000. One trial provided support to low‑income, first‑generation students to enrol in college. Because it used administrative data, the evaluation cost just US$159,000 (and found large positive impacts). The next year, the Arnold Foundation announced that the low‑cost randomised trial initiative would continue, but that this time every program that received high ratings from its expert review panel would be funded (Arnold Foundation 2015). There is an opportunity for a major Australian foundation to do likewise.
In Britain, the Education Endowment Foundation has also conducted many low‑cost randomised trials. An analysis of its first 119 randomised trials in education found that three quarters cost less than £1 million – including both the cost of the intervention and the cost of the evaluation (Ames and Wilson 2016). In the context of many education programs, this is a relatively modest sum.
Here’s an example of a simple trial. In 2021, when school closures kept many pupils at home, the British Government massively expanded tutoring programs. However, a significant challenge was to get disadvantaged pupils to attend tutoring. So the Education Endowment Foundation carried out small‑scale randomised trials of three strategies to boost attendance. In the first intervention, pupils were sent reminder emails shortly before their sessions, so they didn’t accidentally forget. The second intervention gave tutors and pupils a five‑minute quiz about their hobbies, and emailed them afterwards to let them know what they had in common. The third intervention gave tutors training in how to build a stronger relationship with their pupils.
Only one of these interventions worked, and I want you to now guess which one. Student reminder emails, a hobby quiz, or tutor training? The answer is that only the hobby quiz boosted attendance, but it did so by a significant amount – around 7 per cent (Tagliaferri et al 2022). There was good theory behind all three strategies. In practice, only one had the desired effect. That’s why rigorous evaluation matters. And by making it economical, it can be built into the ordinary activities of government.
There’s an old saying that if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Likewise, if you think that evaluation is costly, try financing ineffective programs. Recall the example I gave earlier in which putting social workers in schools was liked by everyone, but didn't actually improve outcomes (Westlake et al 2023). Prior to the trial, the UK Government had planned a national rollout of the program, but this was scrapped after the evaluation. This allowed money to be directed to more effective interventions. David Halpern, the head of the UK Behavioural Insights Team, tells me that it saved taxpayers around £1 billion a year ‑ or enough to pay for the centre that generated it for the next 100 years.
Some randomised trials can be virtually free. If agencies are sending out letters, emails or text messages, then it should not cost much more to send two versions, and see which works best. In business, this approach is known as A/B testing. In many firms, testing your ideas is just part of the corporate culture. Indeed, there are companies where failing have a control group will get you fired. I hasten to add that no public servant is going to lose their job because they didn’t have a control group. But we are looking at how computer systems can be designed so that they make it easy for public servants to do low‑fuss A/B tests – ensuring that government communications get better over time, and saving time and money.
Another easy way that randomised trials can be used in government is to incorporate randomisation into the rollout of programs. During the Global Financial Crisis, when the Australian Government decided to distribute households bonus payments to support the economy, it was clear that it would not be possible to have the money land in everyone’s bank accounts on the same day. So a decision was made to take a list of all Australian postcodes, randomise the order, and have the payment schedule determined by that list. This had two advantages. It was fair, avoiding the need for the government to choose who would get the money first. And it allowed researchers to subsequently evaluate the short‑term impact of the bonus payments on spending patterns (Aisbett, Brueckner and Steinhauser 2013).
Strong democracies use rigorous evaluation
The issue of fairness arises frequently in discussions of randomised trials. The most common criticism is that when we’ve got an effective program, it’s unethical to put people in the control group. A survey of Australian politicians found that half thought randomisation was unfair (Ames and Wilson 2016). Where the evidence is rock‑solid, I agree. But I’d flip it around, and argue that if we don’t know whether the program works, it’s unethical not to conduct a rigorous evaluation if one is practically feasible.
Any discussion of ethics also needs to bear in mind the possibility that programs are harming the people they were intended to help. In the 1990s, the US Congress established a program called 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which provided US$1 billion in funding each year to high‑poverty schools, to provide after school activities, such as homework assistance, as well as activities such as basketball. When researchers asked teachers what they thought the impact of the centres had been, teachers said that students who attended the centres had made improvement over the year in their academic performance, motivation, attentiveness and classroom behaviour (Naftzger et al 2006).
Then the government commissioned a randomised trial of the program, using the fact that centres were oversubscribed to conduct a lottery for the slots available. Comparing lottery winners and losers, the randomised trial found that those who won a spot in the after‑school centres did no better academically. But on behavioural outcomes, they did considerably worse (James‑Burdumy et al 2008). The rate of school suspensions among attendees was around 50 per cent higher. Subsequent studies pointed to a modelling effect – that delinquent boys were encouraging each other to act up. As the father of three boys, I’m no stranger to this effect, but I wouldn’t have predicted it of the learning centres. Nonetheless, it is a fact that for those in the randomised trial, it was better to be in the control group than the treatment group.
Another aspect of the ethical discussion is that carrying out randomised trials can help strengthen our democracy (Tanasoca & Leigh 2023). By building a strong evidence base for programs, citizens can see that government is crafting programs based on what works, rather than blind ideology or partisan self‑interest. It is no coincidence that authoritarian regimes have been the most resistant to science and evidence. Building a better feedback loop demonstrates to the public that the focus of government is on practical problem‑solving. And because the results of randomised trials are intuitively easy to understand, they bring the public into the tent, allowing everyone to see what works.
The credibility revolution
All this is taking place in the backdrop of a ‘credibility revolution’ in the social sciences. A 2015 study led by psychologist Brian Nosek looked at a hundred studies published in top journals, and found that they could replicate only one in three (Open Science Collaboration 2015). Where they could replicate results, the size of the effect shrank to about half of what the original study had found. Part of the problem seems to be that leading academic journals like publishing exciting results. If results vary by chance, then the best journals will end up publishing inflated results (Ioannidis 2005).
Alas, there’s more than chance at work. Over recent years, a number of top researchers, including food researcher Brian Wansink, behavioural scientist Francesca Gino and psychologist Dan Ariely have been accused of fabricating data for their studies. Ironically, a study of dishonesty among car dealers appears to have been based on fake data. A slew of studies have been withdrawn. In one clue as to the size of the problem, anonymous surveys find that 2 per cent of social scientists admit to falsifying data (Fanelli 2009).
Whether it’s luck or fraud, the best antidote to dodgy research is good research. A decade ago, when a leading psychology journal published work by Daryl Bem purporting to prove extrasensory perception (Bem 2011), other researchers were quick to carry out replication studies that found no such effects (Ritchie et al 2012). This is the way science should advance – with other researchers rigorously testing surprising findings to see whether they hold up.
Randomistas within government have been at the forefront of these efforts. Indeed, one of the first to discover that Dan Ariely’s signature studies did not replicate was Ariella Kristal, then a researcher at the UK Behavioural Insights Team (Kristal et al 2020). Results from randomised trials conducted by government researchers tend to be smaller in magnitude than those from randomised trials run by academics: most likely because the government randomistas are using larger samples (Della Vigna and Linos 2022). In other words, randomised trials in government don’t just help improve policies – they have also helped to rein in some of the wilder claims of social scientists.
Big data, better results
Naturally, big data creates big responsibilities. With government holding more personal data than ever before, we’re conscious of the importance of keeping Australians’ data safe, of maintaining proper privacy protections, and of using these data wisely.
Aggregated together to preserve anonymity, administrative data can be used to help government work better. As chief statistician David Gruen puts it, these data are ‘becoming increasingly important to provide the evidence base for policy, community‑level insights, and program evaluation capability’ (Gruen 2023).
Most people don’t like doing surveys, and by using administrative data, we can avoid expensive surveys with their low response rates. This means that we can include everyone in the research, rather than having to focus the study only on the subset of people who choose to do the survey.
Recall the randomised trials of the NSW Drug Court? Its results were based on administrative data, in which participants’ reoffending was determined based on the names of those who came before the court again. Or take a study carried out nationally in 2016‑2017, which sent gentle letters to doctors with the highest rates of antibiotic prescriptions, pointing out that they were among the top third of ‘superprescribers’ in their region, and reminding them of the need to reduce antimicrobial resistance (Australian Government 2018). To find out whether the intervention worked, the researchers used administrative data on prescribing rates. No survey required.
As an added bonus, studies that have both administrative measures and survey measures have found that in areas such as hospital visits, administrative measures are more accurate (Taubman et al 2014).
In 2021 and 2022, I served as one of 25 commissioners on the Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges. Led by John Lavis and a secretariat at McMaster University in Canada, the commissioners were drawn from across the globe. We concluded that ‘Evidence… is not being systematically used by government policymakers, organizational leaders, professionals and citizens to equitably address societal challenges. Instead decision‑makers too often rely on inefficient (and sometimes harmful) informal feedback systems. The result is poor decisions that lead to failures to improve lives, avoidable harm to citizens, and wasted resources.’
Our Global Commission on Evidence report (Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges 2022) proposed that the World Bank devote an upcoming World Development Report to evaluation, that national governments review their use of evidence, and that budgeting take account of evidence. We also suggested that citizens better use evidence, making decisions on their wellbeing based on the best evidence, choosing products and services that are backed by evidence, and donating to causes that are evidence‑based.
For my own part, evidence has shaped how I live my life (Leigh 2018). Randomised trials of daily vitamin supplements persuades me that they don’t have much benefit for otherwise healthy people. As a runner, randomised trials of marathoners has convinced me that compression socks speed recovery. As a donor, rigorous evidence from GiveWell.org has persuaded me to donate to their top‑ranked causes. If the evidence changes, I’m open to changing my diet, my donations, and even my socks.
Underpinning the philosophy of randomised trials are a curiosity about the world, a willingness to experiment, and a modesty about our knowledge. Many of the problems that we face in public policy are hard. If it was easy to close life expectancy gaps, educational gaps or employment gaps, then past generations would have done it already. The fact that these challenges persist means that good intentions aren’t enough.
In the decades since randomised trials became broadly accepted as the best way of evaluating medical treatments, millions of lives have been saved. From childhood leukaemia to heart attacks, survival rates have improved dramatically, and continue to improve. That isn’t because every treatment that has emerged from the laboratory has worked. It’s because medicine has subjected those treatments to rigorous evaluation.
The Australian Centre for Evaluation seeks to take the same approach to policy – testing new ideas with the same methods we use to test new pharmaceuticals. We are looking to make rigorous evaluation a normal part of government: from A/B testing the wording of government letters to using administrative data to evaluate new initiatives.
Public servants can become better consumers of evidence. When claims are made about the effectiveness of a program, ask about the quality of that evidence. Is it a single before‑after study, or a systematic review of multiple randomised trials? Each of us can work to raise the evidence bar.
Public servants can also help produce evidence about what works. If you spot an opportunity to run a high‑quality evaluation in your agency, I encourage you to engage with the Australian Centre for Evaluation.
Over time, embedding evaluation in the work of government could take many forms. Rather than running pilot studies, we might ensure that all small‑scale trials have a credible control group. When policies are rolled out to different sites over time, we could consider building randomisation into the rollout, guaranteeing a rigorous evaluation. When programs are oversubscribed, we might use a lottery approach to allocate the scarce places, and follow up the outcomes of both groups. When funds are being allocated across states and territories, it would be possible to provide resources for those jurisdictions that are willing to conduct rigorous experiments. When allocating resources to non‑profit organisations, we could potentially provide more support to those whose programs are backed by the best evidence.
Finally, if you care about opportunity, you should share our mission to conduct more randomised trials and improve the quality of evaluation. When government fails, the most affluent have private options – private transport, private education, private healthcare, and private security. It’s the poorest who rely most on government, and the most vulnerable who stand to gain when government works better. Disadvantaged Australians don’t need ideology, they need practical solutions that improve their lives. Better evaluation won’t just boost the productivity of government; it can also create a more equal nation.
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* Thanks to a range of experts, including Elisabeth Costa, David Halpern, Jon Lavis and officials in the Australian Centre for Evaluation for valuable feedback on earlier drafts.