The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

Blog: Decide

Decisions, Decisions: How Evidence and Values are Informing DC Governance


August 29, 2019

Last week we discussed the fourth step in The Lab’s project cycle: Test. This week we explore step five: Decide.

A few weeks ago I decided it was time for a new outfit for work. I wear my outfits at least one or two times a week, so I was grateful to have time to pick a good one. But what makes a really good outfit? Durability and comfort are definitely factors. I checked reviews online for materials that are known to last and are comfortable. Whether the outfit was ethically made is also important to me. Who made it? How was it made? Can I recycle it? Is it second hand? Is it sustainable? My budget is a factor as well. And if I’m being honest, style counts a lot. Balancing all these factors meant I had to decide carefully.

What I picked wasn’t “the world’s best outfit,” because if that existed, I wouldn’t have bothered with all my information collection. Instead, I took durability, comfort, ethics, cost, and style into account and decided which outfit to buy. 

Many of the decisions we face are far more important than clothes, but require this same kind of information gathering and consideration. Should I rent apartment A or B? Which school should I send my child to? There’s often no one thing that helps us answer these questions. Nor is there a single right answer.    

We do this in government too. Should the city provide free public transportation to school? Should the city extend a tax break to small, local businesses?

One way The Lab helps District government make these decisions is by testing (which we talked about last week). Testing provides us with more data to inform our decision. Testing doesn’t give us answers. If it did, we would not need to decide! Testing gives us information. What we do next depends on how we put that information into context with our values and other facts. Here are some examples:

Sometimes the decision is simple.
Last school year, we talked with the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants about reducing truancy. The Show Up, Stand Out (SUSO) program had been established to help students and families overcome challenges that lead to unexcused absences, but would mailing a letter to families actually encourage them to participate in SUSO? We tested it and the information that came back: it actually discouraged families from participating. This result made it a straightforward decision to stop sending these letters.

Sometimes the decision is a little less straightforward.
Many times the decision isn’t as simple. Consider our partnership with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. They too are focused on improving attendance and wanted to try out a new transportation support for families in emergency shelter. Could providing gas and rideshare cards help kids miss less school? We’re still testing this out, but let’s imagine the transportation resources result in kids missing one day less in the first two weeks in shelter. Is that worth spending $420 in cards for each family? How big of an effect is needed to make the investment worthwhile? The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education has decided that an increase of at least 1.5 days in attendance is the answer for them. They chose this number because missing just one day during a two week period would put a student on a track to be chronically absent if that pattern were to continue. 

Sometimes the decision is just plain complicated.
However, evidence-informed decisions are not quite as simple as seeing if a number falls above or below a cut-off. Some of these decisions require the village⁠—a conversation about values with our DC community. When we found, for example, that police body-worn cameras didn’t affect specific outcomes we looked at, the decision to keep them took into account the value of transparency and the public’s desire to have a visual record of police-resident interactions. 

Sometimes we talk about values before we see the evidence. 
We ran into similar emphasis on community values, when engaging DC residents on the design of the evaluation of a new program that places nurses in the 911 call center. We'll see the evidence early next year, but imagine the program reduces unnecessary emergency room visits, improves care, and saves taxpayer dollars. The public—and the people who represent them—may still value more that when you call for an ambulance you are guaranteed to get one. So, when we are deciding how to best use our limited resources, we must balance the evidence with community and residents’ needs. Our decisions cannot be made in a vacuum; they are part of the democratic process.

Sometimes the decision is the law.
Laws are the most direct representation of that democratic process. Sometimes legislative decisions are being made at the same time The Lab is building our information base. In fact, laws can sometimes directly address a problem that an idea we were testing was aiming to improve. While we were studying a ticket debt relief program to prevent returning citizens from losing their driver's licenses, DC Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser decided to pass a new law that ended license suspensions due to ticket debt.

Decision made. Now what? 
When all is said and done, and a decision is made, what happens next? If we decide to stick with an idea that is helping or decide to stop it because it isn’t helping at all, or not enough, the issue remains.

For example, if we see the kind of school attendance improvement we are hoping for with the transportation support for families in emergency shelter, school attendance will remain an important area of focus. What happens next is we revisit the issue by repeating the process from step one until we’ve met the District’s attendance goals.

Next week, in our final blog post of the summer, we’ll explain why repeating is vital to actually making a difference for DC.

Chrysanthi Hatzimasoura is a Senior Social Scientist at The Lab @ DC and an Assistant Research Professor at the GW Institute of Public Policy at The George Washington University. She has lived in Ward 2 for 12 years and is a proud DCPS parent. These days she is leaning on wonderful DC friends and colleagues to learn how to make purchasing decisions that are ethical and sustainable.