Public Policy Forum Blog

Is There Enough Science in Local Policymaking?

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the fall research conference of the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) in Washington, DC. The Forum has not had many dealings with APPAM, whose membership is comprised primarily of public policy researchers from academia. Instead, we are active in the Governmental Research Association, which consists primarily of non-academic policy research organizations. What attracted me to the conference, however, was its theme: “The Role of Research in Making Government More Effective.”

The three-day conference was a policy wonk’s paradise. It featured dozens of concurrent 90-minute panel discussions at which researchers from the country’s foremost colleges of public policy/administration presented their work, and other researchers dissected it. I attended sessions that were most relevant to the Forum’s research and/or local policy deliberations, including ones on effective school leaders; “ban the box” policies; re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated individuals; state takeovers in K-12 education; and policing and crime reduction.

Each of the discussions yielded useful insights into specific policy issues, which are too numerous to discuss in this space. Yet, trumping those was the overriding insight that metro Milwaukee's policy scene would benefit from greater use of applied, scientific policy research. And no, this is not a plug for more research by the Forum, as ours tends to be more qualitative and less academic than that discussed at the APPAM conference.

As a former Milwaukee County human services and administration director, I will be the first to admit that local government leaders typically do not have the time – nor do they possess the staff resources – to sift through dozens of academic studies when determining how to formulate or conduct public policy. But there’s a happy medium.

One example occurred to me at the session on “ban the box” – the movement to prohibit employers from including a check box on employment applications asking applicants whether they have a criminal record. I listened to researchers debate a recent Brookings Institution study that contends the strategy inadvertently harms minority candidates without criminal backgrounds. According to the research, that is because of employers’ prejudices that assume all such candidates may have a criminal background without information to indicate otherwise. I then recalled that the City of Milwaukee recently adopted a ban the box measure for City government despite this ongoing policy debate and calls from researchers on all sides of the ideological spectrum for additional research to settle the matter.

As I listened to academic researchers describe dozens of carefully constructed projects to determine the effectiveness of various policies and programs, I also could not help but think of Milwaukee County’s experience with its GO Pass, which has contributed to the severe fiscal challenges facing its transit system. While it would be unrealistic to suggest that County leaders should have constructed a rigorous scientific study before implementing the policy, this is a prime example of an important policy decision that was made without the benefit of any research whatsoever into its potential unintended implications for the financial health of the transit system or its impacts on riders.

Both the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County do have objective research arms (the City's Legislative Reference Bureau is housed in the City Clerk's Office and the County's Research Services Division is housed in the Comptroller's office). Yet, the main function of both entities is to draft resolutions or ordinances at the behest of policymakers; neither typically researches and evaluates the merits of legislation or existing programming, or explores policy options to address key governmental challenges, unless specifically asked to do so.

In contrast, I learned at the APPAM conference about a new initiative by the District of Columbia – the "Lab @ DC" – to establish an eight-person "scientific" bureau within the Office of the Mayor to conduct applied research on policy and programmatic issues and "embed the scientific method into the heart of day-to-day governance."  

Again, it would be far-fetched to suggest that the City or County possesses the resources or the need to consider such a comprehensive approach. But as I left the conference, it occurred to me that it certainly would make sense to consider embedding some additional social science acumen into City and County policymaking.

Perhaps stronger relationships between the two governments and local higher education institutions could be pursued. Or, perhaps they could look to build on existing local policy initiatives that do have social science components, such as the Milwaukee Police Department's "Compstat" and the Milwaukee Community Justice Council's evidence-based decision-making initiative. Whatever the approach, the APPAM conference theme is worth considering – research does have a role in making government more effective.

Rob Henken