Improving Lives with Evidence-Based Policy

How do governments use evidence to become more effective? Jacob Bowers, professor of political science at the University of Illinois, joins The Social-Behavioral Coffee Hour Podcast to discuss this important topic. Professor Bowers is also affiliated with the Department of Statistics, the European Union Center, and the Center for Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Illinois  

In this episode, Jake shares how his experience living in Chile during Pinochet’s rule shaped his interest in political science and evidence-based government. CSBS research scientist Pete Ondish, Ph.D., also talks with Jake about the evidence-based policy movement and the different organizations pioneering the use of social-behavioral science to improve the lives of citizens.

Below is a brief exchange from their conversation.

Pete: Can you tell us a little bit more about the story of how you got interested in political science? 

Jake: Sure. I, I got really interested in political science mostly because I lived for a year in Chile as an exchange student in high school.

Jake: We had discovered that in 1987, Chile was still under Pinochet’s dictatorship. A few months later, I get on a plane and go to Chile and live with a family in southern Chile. The guy was an electrician in a steel plant and the mother of the family-owned her own hair salon.

Jake: And we lived in government-provided concrete block buildings like project-style buildings in a city called Talcahuano in southern Chile. You can imagine these like concrete buildings with surrounded by kind of like fields of mud with like trash and feral dogs in it. And there were police carrying machine guns around. I was thinking, “What is going on? Why would anybody kill other people to take over a country for this reason?”

Pete: And now, we’re in a time when we use science to make government more effective for its constituents. It seems like a kind of landmark concept. 

Jake: It’s it is amazing. It’s not without precedent. The kind of deep embedding, quick turnaround, and focus on behavior is pretty new. One thing I realized was that in the 1960s, the federal government began to require randomized controlled trials to learn about, say, the effectiveness of big welfare policies.

Jake: And so there were multiple studies that cost tens of millions of dollars. There was like, for example, the idea of a copayment for health care comes in part from a study where they used random assignment. I think I forget how many people, maybe 2000 families to get free health care and 2000 families to pay something and 2000 families to do something else.

Jake: And what they discovered is that the families who were randomly assigned to pay nothing for health care, went to the doctor more. But they didn’t necessarily have better outcomes, like for heart disease.