About Us

Our Mission

Our nation needs to make more rapid progress addressing difficult social problems. Given our level of affluence and technological sophistication, there is no excuse for our inadequate responses to homelessness, the opioid crisis, child poverty, youth joblessness, criminal recidivism, and many other issues.

The mission of the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab (GPL) is to speed up our nation’s progress on difficult social problems by improving how state and local government human service agencies function and how their dollars are spent. We hire and train full-time employees, embedding them in government agencies to lead 12-36 months intensive reform projects.

The GPL conducts research on how governments can improve the results they achieve for their citizens. An important part of our research model involves providing pro bono technical assistance to state and local governments. Through this hands-on involvement, we gain insights into the barriers that governments face and the solutions that can overcome these barriers. By engaging current students and recent graduates in this effort, we are able to provide experiential learning as well.

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State and local government human service agencies spend more than $200 billion each year assisting society’s most vulnerable populations, by far the largest amount of resources mobilized against these problems. But the way most of this spending occurs gets in the way of the innovation we need. In our work with governments, we have observed that social service agencies across the U.S., regardless of policy area, are experiencing a common set of challenges that ultimately prevent them from making more progress on important social problems:

  • Agencies rarely make use of high-frequency data to troubleshoot performance problems, drive continuous improvement, or spot opportunities for systems re-engineering. State and local governments spend billions of dollars on social programs, mostly with no overall strategy for how to make progress on program goals and few analytic tools for matching the right clients to the right services or identifying gaps in the service array. Most fail to evaluate programs or the relative effectiveness of different providers, and they find it difficult to design contracts with good incentives and to set up collaborative relationships with providers.

  • Most governments treat procurement and contract management as back-office functions rather than as key strategic activities. It is not only social services that governments have trouble procuring.  Nearly everything important that governments do combines the efforts of government employees with goods and services acquired from the private sector. Yet, even simple procurements get tied up in red tape and can take months to accomplish. Many contracts are renewed at the last minute, without consideration of past performance. Contract management consists largely of processing invoices and change orders, with little attention paid to monitoring quality or collaborating with vendors to improve performance.

  • While there are dozens of organizations focused on policy advocacy, there are many fewer focused on implementation. Attempts to improve services often founder without clear forcing mechanisms that can hold stakeholders accountable to each other over a sustained period of time, across transitions in leadership, and through project pitfalls. Contracting and procurement, along with other GPL tools for using high-frequency data and analysis to improve operations, offer mechanisms to embed good policy-making and decision-making into agency business-as-usual functioning.

In combination, these challenges mean that there is too little innovation in social service delivery. With staff focused on getting siloed programmatic spending out the door, no one steps back to think about achieving better results for the populations being served. Without proper data analysis, no one notices that results are subpar or asks operationally relevant questions about how to do better. Without strategic management of contracts, opportunities for troubleshooting, continuous improvement, and systems re-engineering are missed. Without evaluation, we never learn what works and what doesn’t. Without knowledge and capacity building, resources to design and launch innovative projects are limited. To counteract these challenges, the GPL works with state and local government social service agencies to develop and implement lasting reforms in how they administer their programs.

Our Story

The GPL was established in 2011 with a $350,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.  From 2011-2013, Professor Liebman and two government innovation fellows helped Massachusetts and New York State become the first U.S. states to launch pay for success (PFS) projects using social impact bonds.  These engagements allowed GPL to develop its model of embedding recent graduates of policy, law, and business schools in government agencies to provide pro bono technical assistance on innovative projects. 

In 2013 the GPL received $2 million in additional grants and expanded its PFS work to 10 jurisdictions (Chicago, CO, CT, Denver, IL, MA, MI, NY, OH, SC) served by a team of 10 FTEs. In total, these first two rounds of PFS engagements produced 9 PFS contracts, including 5 that involve randomized controlled trials of important service delivery models. Project policy areas include reducing recidivism, providing supportive housing to homeless individuals, increasing kindergarten readiness through high quality pre-K provision, reducing substance use-driven removals to the child welfare system, expanding home visitation programs to improve child and maternal health, and providing adult basic education services to improve employment outcomes.

 

Our Impact

Our ambition is to create a new standard for government management of social services. By spreading effective practices that improve government performance, we help existing dollars go to the right things, help more individuals get served well, and create outcomes-focused environments where innovation can occur.

Our Model

ProjectsProjects

Our engagements focus not simply on advising government but on designing and launching high-impact projects. We launch projects across the U.S. in a variety of policy areas, including behavioral health and homelessness, children and families, criminal justice, education and jobs, and procurement systems. These projects can serve as models for replication efforts and systems reengineering to improve processes of service delivery (for example, by systematically matching individuals with the right services and tracking service performance to ensure desired outcomes are achieved).

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ToolsTools

We systematically evaluate the problems causing government mismanagement that most directly lead to poor outcomes. We then work intensively with partner governments to implement one or more data-driven management approaches–our tools–that are designed to remedy the drivers of government underperformance. These tools include active contract management, results-driven contracting, and service-mix rebalancing.

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PeoplePeople

Our engagements are 3 months to 3 years long and feature teams of 1-5 team members who are embedded in government agencies and dedicated to a significant initiative. GPL staff undertake rigorous data analysis, identify high-impact areas for systems re-engineering, implement pilot projects to demonstrate innovative methods, and apply adaptive leadership techniques to build capacity for sustained change. GPL staff members work closely with their state or local counterparts and are given direct access to senior leadership, data, and program participants. The presence of a GPL staff member whose focus is solely on moving a key project forward is essential to keeping projects on track when faced with the daily challenges of government operations. And because the tools we create grow out of close collaborations with governments, they are designed to be adopted and scaled by government practitioners.

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Our Funders

We are grateful to the funders who make our work possible:

  • Corporation for National and Community Service Social Innovation Fund
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities
  • Laura and John Arnold Foundation