In December 2012, I was invited to speak at a conference that featured the leadership of a federal agency, and I presented an idea that I called the “Center for Practitioner-Led Trials.” That cumbersome title evolved to become BetaGov. BetaGov promotes practitioner-led research to develop and test locally generated innovations. We work in many policy areas, including education, criminal justice, health, and human services. We encourage pilot-phase testing to help agencies figure out what works, and what does not, with their staff and their clients. Local circumstances matter.
What BetaGov does and how we do it are unconventional by design—BetaGov exists because conventional approaches to testing policies and practices were slow and non-inclusive, and results often were irrelevant to end users. BetaGov is an agile team representing many disciplines: economics, statistics, psychology, engineering, psychiatry, and design. All BetaGov personnel have direct experience in field-research activities and have participated in the design, implementation, analysis, and dissemination of randomized controlled trials (RCTs).
The goal of BetaGov is to change the way knowledge is created in the public sector by moving a meaningful share of pilot-level research from academics to practitioners so that more ideas can be tested. BetaGov motivates and supports practitioner-led RCTs. Most of the RCTs we facilitate are suggested by line staff and practitioners in the field and by recipients of services. The trials are as simple as text-message reminders for appointments and as substantial as changing how cash-assistance payments are disbursed or a “transition pod” (stepdown preparation for reentry from segregation in prison). The latter was developed collaboratively with inmates in solitary confinement, corrections administrators, and mental health professionals.
Our portfolio includes more than 160 RCTs (active or in planning phase) in a dozen states, on topics from criminal justice to healthcare practices. Agencies in three states have already appointed BetaGov-dedicated employees. One of our goals is to advance social-policy reform using multiagency strategies to improve efficiency, recognizing that many agencies have overlapping caseloads and people are unfairly and unproductively bounced among them.
We work with agencies to solicit ideas from their staff and their clients and then help them to test innovative ideas (as well as existing practices) with rapidly launched RCTs. With this rapid increase in knowledge generation, BetaGov is amassing a repository of high-quality data and findings that can inform policymakers and practitioners in virtually all public policy areas. We are fast, and thanks to the generous support of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, our services are provided free of charge.