Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Fund What Works

“Instead of wasting taxpayer money on programs that are obsolete or ineffective, government should be seeking out creative, results-oriented programs…and helping them replicate their efforts across America.”

--President Barack Obama, June 30, 2009

Thanks to historic investments in evidence and evaluation, we know more about what works than ever before.  But evidence of what works only matters to the extent it is acted on.  Too often, proven programs that out-perform business as usual are left on the shelf. 

A core priority of the Office of Social Innovation is to follow evidence of what works with the resources to scale up what’s working best. When we scale these solutions, we get better results for people and communities in need.  In addition, by directing resources according to evidence and for outcomes, government can act more responsibly and effectively, better deploying scarce public resources.  As government increases funding of what works, it should shift resources from programs that underperform or don’t work as well.

Typically, when it comes to funding the social sector, government at every level is more likely to contract for process compliance and outputs rather than outcomes and impact. Thankfully, innovations in data and evidence mean that what’s working is increasingly knowable and increasingly known, giving us new ability to connect funding to what works. The Office of Social Innovation has introduced and scaled new procurement innovations that directly link funding to evidence and outcomes.  These solutions include:

  • Pay for Success: PFS refers to a novel variety of contracting approaches through which government pays for outcomes rather than services or outputs.  In some PFS models, impact investors cover the upfront costs of providing services and are repaid if individual lives are measurably improved as determined by an independent evaluator. PFS reduces barriers to introducing proven and innovative practices by shifting risk of failure to the private sector.  It accelerates the use of data to determine outcomes, and encourages cross-silo collaboration to achieve them.  For these reasons, PFS has been a core policy priority of the President’s social innovation agenda since 2013.  Since 2012, the Office of Social Innovation has worked with eight federal agencies to provide nearly $100 million in federal PFS funding across multiple issue areas.  Funding has focused on building the pipeline of PFS projects, funding feasibility studies, transaction structuring, evaluations, and outcomes payments alongside state and local government.  These federal dollars have leveraged at least $65 million in non-federal funds for the social sector through the PFS model.

  • Tiered-Evidence Funds: The Office has helped to launch and sustain tiered-evidence funds that build evidence for promising programs while helping them scale.  Some such models offer smaller grants for innovative or new work that has not built evidence of efficacy, while offering larger awards for programs that have completed rigorous evaluations of their demonstrated impact. Key tiered-evidence initiatives, a hallmark of the Obama Administration’s commitment to what works, have been fueled with $3 billion in federal funding and non-federal match funding since the President took office.

  • Valuing evidence in grantmaking: Organizations can build evidence of effectiveness but if that does not help them sustain and grow their work, there is less incentive to undertake the cost, expense, and risk of rigorous evaluation.  Surprisingly, rigorous evidence of effectiveness itself is rarely a meaningful scoring factor when funders are assessing applicants. The Office of Social innovation has encouraged government at all levels to value evidence of effectiveness in assessing what programs to fund. We’ve worked especially closely with federal agencies to improve grant programs to provide meaningful scoring preference for applicants engaging in evidence-based practice and/or building evidence through rigorous evaluation, as the Corporation for National Service and the Department of Education have done.