More data, please! Ezra Klein on the investment deficit (and why numbers matter)

A column by Ezra Klein in last week’s Washington Post should provide some comfort to recent (and soon-to-be!) graduates of public health programs around the country.

The bad news first: along with the staggering federal budget deficit, Americans face an investment deficit that will have repercussions for decades. Americans need to invest more money into our infrastructure:  education, job training, and new technologies — in short, we need to invest in the systems that support human capital.

The good news: now is a good time to invest in those same systems. As Klein asserts, “government borrowing costs are lower” than they’ve been in decades.

Okay, more bad news: we don’t have the data to evaluate existing programs and substantiate funding. Klein interviews Michael Greenstone, former chief economist for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, who sums it up bluntly: “In the first year of the Obama administration […] I appointed myself to run around and argue that the stimulus was the greatest opportunity for evaluation of federal programs that’s ever happened. But the federal government is not equipped to do that. No one is against it, really, but it’s not a priority. It’s not part of the culture. And so it doesn’t have the sense of urgency that running a fit government would require.”

And finally, some more good news. This idea of government “fitness” — of regular, rigorous evaluation, of applying data to support (or shelf) programs — is getting some play beyond the beltway.

So now, some questions for you, dear reader: is data being used to support your programs? Would you like more support for evaluation efforts in the field?  Share your thoughts in the comments.