When randomization is strategic

Here’s a quote from Tom Yates on his blog Sick Populations about a speech he heard by Rachel Glennerster of J-PAL:

Glennerster pointed out that the evaluation of PROGRESA, a conditional cash transfer programme in Mexico and perhaps the most famous example of randomised evaluation in social policy, was instigated by a Government who knew they were going to lose the next election. It was a way to safeguard their programme. They knew the next Government would find it hard to stop the trial once it was started and were confident the evaluation would show benefit, again making it hard for the next Government to drop the programme. Randomisation can be politically advantageous.

I think I read this about Progresa / Oportunidades before but had forgotten it, and thus it’s worth re-sharing. The way in which Progresa was randomized (different areas were stepped into the program, so there was a cohort of folks who got it later than others, but all the high need areas got it within a few years) made this more politically feasible as well. I think this situation, in which a government institutes a study of a program to keep it alive through subsequent changes of government, will probably be a less common tactic than its opposite, in which a government designs an evaluation of a popular program that a) it thinks doesn’t work, b) it wants to cut, and c) the public otherwise likes, just to prove that it should be cut — but only time will tell.

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