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Bring ‘Moneyball’ rigor to state, local governance

Talk about your great news:

“Survey shows little progress on bullying,” the headline in Sunday’s Herald read.

Yep, go ahead and spread the word, because this trend is really worth celebrating.

OK, not the trend of “little progress on bullying;” that one’s not worth celebrating at all. It’s the other phrase in the headline that represents good news.

That would be “Survey shows,” and it’s an upbeat development because it reflects an honest effort to actually figure out if a government program works.

At long last, federal and state officials are using sophisticated tools to measure which government programs are making a real difference, The New York Times recently reported.

It’s great to see North Dakota following that lead, even if the state’s efforts have a long way to go. Minnesota should follow suit, subjecting its own anti-bullying program — which the Legislature strengthened this year — to rigorous evaluation.

Then both states should put their other programs under the microscope, too.

And each program’s future should depend on the evaluation’s results.

“Less than 1 percent of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence of cost-effectiveness,” writes Peter Schuck, a professor at Yale Law School, in his book, “Why government fails so often,” as quoted in the Times’ story.

“The government has largely ignored the ‘Moneyball’ revolution in which private-sector decisions are increasingly based on hard data,” Schuck’s book continues.

“And yet,” the Times reports, “there is some good news in this area, too.

“The explosion of available data has made evaluating success — in the government and the private sector — easier and less expensive than it used to be. At the same time, a generation of data-savvy policy makers and researchers has entered government and begun pushing it to do better. …

“The result is a flowering of experiments to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

One of those experiments is the bullying survey, which North Dakota now will use to evaluate the state’s anti-bullying program.

The program requires each district to have an anti-bullying plan, and the districts have complied. But after two years, they don’t have much to show for it.

“One in four North Dakota students — 25.4 percent — reported that they were bullied at school in 2013,” Forum News Service reported.

“Two years earlier, in 2011, 24.9 percent of high-school students reported they were bullied at school.”

State officials say good results will take more time, but North Dakotans shouldn’t be endlessly patient. Around the country, trust in government is at a deep low, and the fact that few grossly inefficient or even utterly failed programs ever get closed is a big reason why.

“The United States government has historically been good at the big stuff, from fighting wars to breaking new scientific grounds,” the Times confirms.

“It’s everything else that tends to present a problem.” If North Dakota and Minnesota resolve to evaluate “everything else,” then base funding and other decisions on those evaluations, the good governance that results will influence lawmakers and taxpayers from sea to shining sea.