Ten Questions to Better Pilot Programs is an obscure but interesting Fiscal Brief produced last month by the Fiscal Research Division of the North Carolina General Assembly. Study bills and pilot programs are often used to molify sponsors of legislation otherwise faced with certain defeat. When properly designed and implemented pilot programs can produce useful information. Many such programs are inadvertently doomed to preclude meaningful assessment, producing ambiguous results.
The Fiscal Brief has some general recommendations:
Policymakers should insist upon pilot programs that are designed as randomly controlled trials whenever possible.
Policymakers should avoid insisting that their district or districts be included in treatment groups.
A pilot program that generates actionable data is far more important than having a poorly designed program placed in a home district.
Policymakers should allow time for pilot programs to reach their full implementation and allow time to observe program effects. Acting too early might result in the abandonment of programs that are actually working.
Policymakers should ask the following ten questions to ensure that new pilot programs will be able to provide clear results:
1. What is the problem that needs solving?
2. How does the program address the identified problem?
3. What is the cost of the program if it is successful?
4. Is there a budget or spending plan?
5. What criteria will be used to determine the program’s success or failure?
6. What alternative programs/solutions might also address the problem?
7. Does the design of the program allow for meaningful evaluation?
8. Are there problems in the program design that will affect validity?
9. Is there sufficient time to observe effects?
10. Are there enough units of study to ensure statistical significance?
Clear results will help legislators to avoid pifalls and to direct tax dollars to useful and effective purposes. The Fiscal Research Division produces other wonkish reports of interest to anyone concerned about the state budget and the fiscal impact of proposed legislation.