The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

Blog: Repeat

Going the Distance: How We Incorporate Lessons Learned to Improve the Lives of DC Residents


September 5, 2019

Last week we discussed the fifth step in The Lab’s project cycle: Decide. This week we explore the sixth and final step: Repeat.

You're more likely to find us taking a leisurely stroll through DC parks than running anywhere. But, we’ve heard of marathons. We know a marathon is long. And hard. And that it takes a lot of time, training, and dedication to cross the finish line. Marathoners do tempo runs and sprints. They stretch and cross-train. They carbo load and add lean protein to their diets. Marathoners do this because they know that they won’t make it 26.2 miles if they prepare in only one way. 

Running (or walking) on the Anacostia River Trail. (Credit: The Lab @ DC)

Running (or walking) on the Anacostia River Trail. (Credit: The Lab @ DC)

While the three of us may not be distance runners, our work in The Lab @ DC takes a marathoner’s approach to DC's most pressing policy challenges. Improving police-community relations, reducing student achievement gaps, alleviating poverty—these can't be solved overnight. They take time, repeated effort, and varied approaches to reach the final goal. 

Here’s how The Lab and our agency partners are going the distance to tackle pressing policy challenges in the District:

Improving Police-Community Relations

Public trust is critical to effective policing and public safety. Police departments must leverage and evaluate a variety of tools to build and maintain that trust while making efficient and innovative use of resources. 

That’s precisely what the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is doing. Starting in 2015, The Lab worked with MPD to conduct a large-scale randomized evaluation of the police body-worn camera program. Using administrative data, including records of police use of force, civilian complaints, policing activity, and judicial outcomes, The Lab @ DC measured the impact of the program. In a surprise to many observers, we found that the cameras did not have the anticipated effects on the outcomes studied. However, by providing a visual record of police-resident interactions, the program helps facilitate transparency and accountability, advancing core values of MPD and the District. 

But the work didn’t stop there. MPD and The Lab collaborated again to build rigorous evaluation into a new initiative — a novel training program aimed at strengthening police-community relations. The training is designed to equip officers with detailed knowledge of the historical and cultural context in which they police. It includes a lecture on critical race theory and the history of the African American experience in DC, as well as a guided tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Together, we’re testing whether providing officers with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the city in which they work empowers them to engage more effectively with residents. By repeating the project cycle, we can keep learning from our efforts and channel those lessons towards future programs and policies that better serve us all. 

Nurturing Family-School Relationships

You might remember a letter we sent with the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants to encourage families to participate in a program meant to help student attendance. It didn’t work the way we had hoped. But we continue to care deeply about how communications from school will work best for families. Often, families feel inundated with one-way notifications about problems their child is having: daily robo-calls each time their child is absent and letters like the one we sent. But what if these interactions were two-way and focused not just on problems, but also on accomplishments and progress? Would that have a more positive impact on the family-school relationship?

Under the leadership of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, we’ve started a project with several public schools in DC and an education-based social enterprise to develop tools for schools to move past letters and robo-calls. The tools allow teachers and school leadership to personally engage parents about a range of topics related to their child: an aced math test, an improvement in attendance after some struggles, and yes—alerts when things are getting serious. The project is in progress, but it’s another way we’re addressing student attendance, a marathon-length challenge.

Supporting Low-Income Residents

Last year we partnered with the Department of Human Services (DHS) to test whether a reminder letter, designed using science, could help families remember to renew their eligibility for needed cash assistance. The letters successfully increased the number of families who continued receiving benefits by 14 percent! 

That project is a success in our book, but an effective letter is just one step in the right direction. Defeating complex problems, like poverty, requires complex, multi-dimensional solutions. So we’ve partnered with DHS again. This time, we’re planning a randomized evaluation to see whether an alternative method to traditional case management—a coaching model—can help similar families achieve and maintain economic self-sufficiency.

The race is never over

The Lab’s project cycle—listen, design, do something, test, decide, repeat—comes to life in many different ways depending on the needs of an agency or the policy challenge. The type of method we use may vary. The steps in the project cycle may not always follow one after the other. But regardless of the projects or the step we’re on, the underlying objective is to do better by the people we serve: DC residents. With better knowledge of what works, what doesn’t, and what might work better, we can make the most efficient use of our valuable resources and better serve the District today and for the future.

Anita Ravishankar is a Research Scientist at the Metropolitan Police Department and Fellow at The Lab @ DC. She lives in Ward 6 with her husband and infant son, and is currently testing her way through an infinite set of permutations and combinations for getting her baby boy to sleep through the night. 

Vicky Mei is a Data Scientist at The Lab @ DC. Vicky used to be an amateur runner, but she found that her time is now better spent trying to find the best lighting and angles to take photos of her cats.

Rebecca Johnson is a visiting Data Scientist at The Lab @ DC. In her spare time, Rebecca is still trying to figure out whether finishing her dissertation is a marathon or a sprint.