How constituent feedback can help government

Michele Jolin

Social entrepreneurs are leading the way by using ‘constituent feedback’ to understand better what is working, for whom and in what circumstances. Consider, for example, the American non-profit organization LIFT, which has spent 15 years helping people lift themselves out of poverty. Recently, it has built on its success and improved outcomes by listening to its members. By constantly collecting feedback, LIFT learned that those with strong social networks were twice as likely to make progress on their financial goals. So they adapted their work and focused their operations on increasing their members’ social connections.

Governments at all levels need to learn from examples like LIFT. Using this kind of feedback could improve impact and increase public confidence in the ability of government to deliver results. Moreover, this kind of constituent feedback would arguably begin to foster an even more important culture shift towards broad use of evidence and data to improve impact. It could help foster a critical ‘constituency for results’ – that is, beneficiaries of programmes who have a stronger stake in the impact of the programme, a well-formed view of how to improve its quality, and an expectation that government can and should deliver better results with public resources. Ultimately, this may have the most powerful impact on driving broad change in the way governments seek and use data and evidence. 

‘Elected officials and other policymakers rarely make decisions based on programme effectiveness, data, and evidence informed by constituent experiences.’ 

We know that elected officials and other policymakers rarely make decisions based on programme effectiveness, data, and evidence informed by constituent experiences. Policy and funding decisions are more likely to be based on special interest pressures, gut instincts, political ideology, public opinion, the need for political compromise to advance legislation, and, most commonly, what was funded in the past.

There are a number of notable barriers to policymakers making a shift in the status quo and using data and evidence to make policy decisions.

A supply-side problem
First, there is a supply-side problem. For many important social challenges – worker training or disconnected youth, for instance – there simply is not enough rigorous evidence to be able to credibly shape policymakers’ decisions. In some cases, there may not have been sufficient resources invested in figuring out what works and/or how programmes can be improved to work better. High-quality, rigorous evaluations can be expensive and few – particularly those with great need – have the resources to conduct them. In other instances, the lack of an evidence base may be due to programme providers who have resisted evaluations arguing that a solution to a particular problem is too hard to measure, or that evaluation is unnecessary because of their intuitive confidence that a solution is having an impact.

Technical or translation problems
Second, there are technical or translation problems for policymakers even when the evidence does exist. For example, there is no common language or common standards to help policymakers understand the rigour or appropriateness of evidence. They also lack a system for sharing this information in a manner that will help them to make better decisions. Critically, governments do not have the infrastructure, funding models or policy approaches to act on useful data and evidence of impact.

Lack of political will
Finally, and most importantly, policymakers face a problem of political will. Elected officials and policymakers face enormous pressures to maintain the status quo. Since budget-making in government starts with what has been funded in the past there is considerable inertia about making new decisions based on evidence of impact – and no real incentive to do so. And there are many influential special interests that are highly invested in the way government currently distributes funds.

In order to overcome these challenges and increase policymakers’ use of and demand for evidence and data, Results for America believes strongly that we must build the political will. To make the tough shift from decisions based on gut instinct to decisions made on evidence and data, elected officials and policymakers must hear from many influential sources, including beneficiaries of programmes. This constituent feedback can help improve the quality of services, but it also will help increase the beneficiaries’ investment in programmes that work. It can both elevate the voices of those who are beneficiaries of government programmes and pressure government leaders to seek better outcomes.

Michele Jolin is the CEO and co-founder of Results for America and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Email

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