This post is a classic paper by Peter Rossi from 1987 (Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Volume 4, pages 3-20) which addresses a chronic problem in all policy efforts to change complex social systems. The social organizations of modern life are so large, so complex, so dependent on the cooperation of so many actors and agencies that making measurable changes in these organizations of the kind intended by the policymakers is fiendishly difficult. These problems become particularly visible through the process of program evaluation. As a result, Rossi comes up with a set of “laws” that govern the evaluation process.
The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact
assessment of any large scale social program is zero.
The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the
impact assessment of social program. the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.
The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will be zero.
The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to
fail are evaluated.
Read this lovely piece and you will get a rich sense of how hard it is to design policies that will effect the kind of change that the policies aims to accomplish. Social organizations have a life of their own whose momentum is difficult to deflect.
Here’s a link to the original paper.
THE IRON LAW OF EVALUATION
AND OTHER METALLIC RULES
Peter H. Rossi
Evaluations of social programs have a long history, as history goes in the
social sciences, but it has been only in the last two decades that evaluation
has come close to becoming a routine activity that is a functioning part of
the policy formation process. Evaluation research has become an activity
that no agency administering social programs can do without and still
retain a reputation as modern and up to date. In academia, evaluation
research has infiltrated into most social science departments as an integral
constituent of curricula. In short, evaluation has become institutionalized.
There are many benefits to social programs and to the social sciences
from the institutionalization of evaluation research. Among the more
important benefits has been a considerable increase in knowledge concerning
social problems and about how social programs work (and do not
work). Along with these benefits. however, there have also been attached
some losses. For those concerned with the improvement of the lot of
disadvantaged persons, families and social groups, the resulting knowledge
has provided the bases for both pessimism and optimism. On the
pessimistic side, we ha\e learned that designing successful programs is a
difficult task that is not easily or often accomplished. On the optimistic
side, we have learned more and more about the kinds of programs that can
be successfully designed and implemented. Knowledge derived from evaluations
is beginning to guide our judgments concerning what is feasible
and how to reach those feasible goals.
To draw some important implications from this knowledge about the
workings of social programs is the objective of this paper. The first step is
to formulate a set of “laws” that summarize the major trends in evaluation
findings. Next. a set of explanations arc provided for those overall findings.
Finally, we explore the consequences for applied social science activities
that flow from our new knowledge of social programs.
SOME “LAWS” OF EVALUATION
A dramatic but slightly overdrawn view of two decades of evaluation
efforts can be stated as a set of “laws,” each summarizing some strong
tendency that can be discerned in that body of materials. Following a 19th
Century practice that has fallen into disuse in social science. these laws
are named after substances of varying durability. roughly indexing each
The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact
assessment of any large scale social program is zero.
The Iron Law arises from the experience that few impact assessments
of large scale social programs have found that the programs in question
had any net impact. The law also means that. based on the evaluation
efforts of the las twenty years. the best a priori estimate of the net impact
assessment of any program is zero, i.e., that the the program will have no
The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the
impact assessment of social program. the more likely is the resulting
estimate of net impact to be zero.
This law means that the more technically rigorous the net impact
assessment. the more likely arc its results to be zero–ur no effect.
Specifically, this law implies that estimating net impacts through randomized
controlled experiments, the avowedly best approach to estimating
nd impacts. is more likely to show zero effects than other less
The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed
to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will
This law means that social programs designed to rehabilitate individuals
by changing them in some way or another are more likely to fail. The
Brass Law may appear to be redundant since all programs, including those
designed to deal with individuals, are covered by the Iron Law. This
redundancy is intended to emphasize the especially difficult task faced in
designing and implementing effective programs that are designed to rehabilitate
The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to
fail are evaluated.
Of the several metallic laws of evaluation, the zinc law has the most
optimistic slant since it implies that there are effective programs but that
such effective programs are never evaluated. It also implies that if a social
program is effective, that characteristic is obvious enough and hence
policy makers and others who sponsor and fund evaluations decide
It is possible to formulate a number of additional laws of evaluation,
each attached to one or another of a variety of substances varying in
strength ranging from strong, robust metals to flimsy materials. The substances
involved are only limited by one’s imagination. But, if such laws
are to mirror the major findings of the last two decades of evaluation
research they would all carry the same message: The laws would claim
that a review of the history of the last two decades of efforts to evaluate
major social programs in the United States sustain the proposition that
over this period the American establishment of policy makers, agency
officials, professionals and social scientists did not know how to design
and implement social programs that were minimally effective, let alone
HOW FIRM ARE THE METALLIC LAWS OF EVALUATION?
How seriously should we take the metallic laws? Are they simply the
social science analogue of poetic license, intended to provide dramatic
emphasis? Or, do the laws accurately summarize the last two decades’
First of all, viewed against the evidence, the iron law is not entirely
rigid. True, most impact assessments conform to the iron law’s dictates in
showing at best marginal effects and all too often no effects at all. There
are even a few evaluations that have shown effects in the wrong directions,
opposite to the desired effects. Some of the failures of large scale programs
have been particularly disappointing because of the large investments
of time and resources involved: Manpower retraining programs
have not been shown to improve earnings or employment prospects of
participants (Westat, 1976-1980). Most of the attempts to rehabilitate pris-
oners have failed to reduce recidivism (Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks, 1975).
Most educational innovations have not been shown to improve student
learning appreciably over traditional methods (Raizen and Rossi, 1981 ).
But, there are also many exceptions to the iron rule! The “iron” in the
Iron Law has shown itself to be somewhat spongy and therefore easily,
although not frequently, broken. Some social programs have shown
positive effects in the desired directions, and there are even some quite
spectacular successes: the American old age pension system plus Medicare
has dramatically improved the lives of our older citizens. Medicaid
has managed to deliver medical services to the poor to the extent that the
negative correlation between income and consumption of medical services
has declined dramatically since enactment. The family planning
clinics subsidized by the federal government were effective in reducing the
number of births in areas where they were implemented (Cutright and
Jaffe, 1977). There are also human services programs that have been shown
to be effective, although mainly on small scale, pilot runs: for example, the
Minneapolis Police Foundation experiment on the police handling of
family violence showed that if the police placed the offending abuser in
custody over night that the offender was less likely to show up as an
accused offender over the succeeding six months ( Sherman and Berk, 1984 ).
A meta-evaluation of psychotherapy showed that on the average, persons
in psychotherapy-no matter what brand-were a third of a standard
deviation improved over control groups that did not have any therapy
(Smith, Glass, and Miller, 1980). In most of the evaluations of manpower
training programs, women returning to the labor force benefitted
positively compared to women who did not take the courses, even though
in general such programs have not been successful. Even Head Start is
now beginning to show some positive benefits after many years of equivocal
findings. And so it goes on, through a relatively long list of successful
But even in the case of successful social programs, the sizes of the net
effects have not been spectacular. In the social program field, nothing has
yet been invented which is as effective in its way as the small pox vaccine
was for the field of public health. In short, as is well known (and widely
deplored) we arc not on the verge of wiping out the social scourges of our
time: ignorance, poverty, crime, dependency, or mental illness show great
promise to be with us for some time to come.
The Stainless Steel Law appears to be more likely to hold up over a
The Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules 7
large series of cases than the more general Iron Law. This is because the
fiercest competition as an explanation for the seeming success of any
program-especially human services programs-ordinarily is either selfor
administrator-selection of clients. In other words, if one finds that a
program appears to be effective, the most likely alternative explanation to
judging the program as the cause of that success is that the persons
attracted to that program were likely to get better on their own or that the
administrators of that program chose those who were already on the road
to recovery as clients. As the better research designs-particularly randomized
experiments-eliminate that competition, the less likely is a
program to show any positive net effect. So the better the research design,
the more likely the net impact assessment is likely to be zero.
How about the Zinc Law of Evaluation? First, it should be pointed out
that this law is impossible to verify in any literal sense. The only way that
one can be relatively certain that a program is effective is to evaluate it,
and hence the proposition that only ineffective programs are evaluated can
never be proven.
However, there is a sense in which the Zinc law is correct. If the a
priori, beyond-any-doubt expectations of decision makers and agency
heads is that a program will be effective, there is little chance that the
program will be evaluated at all. Our most successful social program,
social security payments to the aged has never been evaluated in a rigorous
sense. It is “well known” that the program manages to raise the incomes
of retired persons and their families, and “it stands to reason” that this
increase in income is greater than what would have happened, absent the
social security system.
Evaluation research is the legitimate child of skepticism, and where
there is faith, research is not called upon to make a judgment. Indeed, the
history of the income maintenance experiments bears this point out.
Those experiments were not undertaken to find out whether the main
purpose of the proposed program could be achieved: that is, no one
doubted that payments would provide income to poor people-indeed,
payments by definition are income, and even social scientists are not
inclined to waste resources investigating tautologies. Furthermore, no one
doubted that payments could be calculated and checks could be delivered
to households. The main purpose of the experiment was to estimate the
sizes of certain anticipated side effects of the payments, about which
economists and policy makers were uncertain-how much of a work
disincentive effect would be generated by the payments and whether the
payments would affect other aspects of the households in undesirable
ways-for instance, increasing the divorce rate among participants.
In short, when we look at the evidence for the metallic laws, the
evidence appears not to sustain their seemingly rigid character, but the
evidence does sustain the “laws” as statistical regularities. Why this
should be the case, is the topic to be explored in the remainder of this
IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH EVALUATION RESEARCH?
A possibility that deserves very serious consideration is that there is
something radically wrong with the ways in which we go about conducting
evaluations. Indeed, this argument is the foundation of a revisionist school
of evaluation, composed of evaluators who are intent on calling into
question the main body of methodological procedures used in evaluation
research, especially those that emphasize quantitative and particularly
experimental approaches to the estimation of net impacts. The revisionists
include such persons as Michael Patton ( 1980) and Egon Guba (1981 ).
Some of the revisionists are reformed number crunchers who have seen
the errors of their ways and have been reborn as qualitative researchers.
Others have come from social science disciplines in which qualitative
ethnographic field methods have been dominant.
Although the issue of the appropriateness of social science methodology
is an important one, so far the revisionist arguments fall far short
of being fully convincing. At the root of the revisionist argument appears
to be that the revisionists find it difficult to accept the findings that most
social programs, when evaluated for impact assessment by rigorous quantitative
evaluation procedures, fail to register main effects: hence the
defects must be in the method of making the estimates. This argument per
se is an interesting one, and deserves attention: all procedures need to be
continually re-evaluated. There are some obvious deficiencies in most
evaluations, some of which are inherent in the procedures employed. For
example, a program that is constantly changing and evolving cannot
ordinarily be rigorously evaluated since the treatment to be evaluated
cannot be clearly defined. Such programs either require new evaluation
procedures or should not be evaluated at all.
The weakness of the revisionist approaches lies in their proposed
solutions to these deficiencies. Criticizing quantitative approaches for
their woodenness and inflexibility, they propose to replace current methods
with procedures that have even greater and more obvious deficiencies.
The qualitative approaches they propose are not exempt from issues of
internal and external validity and ordinarily do not attempt to address
these thorny problems. Indeed, the procedures which they advance as
substitutes for the mainstream methodology are usually vaguely des-
scribed, constituting an almost mystical advocacy of the virtues of qualitative
approaches, without clear discussion of the specific ways in which
such procedures meet validity criteria. In addition, many appear to adopt
program operator perspectives on effectiveness, reasoning that any effort
to improve social conditions must have some effect, with the burden of
proof placed on the evaluation researcher to find out what those effects
Although many of their arguments concerning the woodenness of many
quantitative researches are cogent and well taken, the main revisionist
arguments for an alternative methodology are unconvincing: hence one
must look elsewhere than to evaluation methodology for the reasons for
the failure of social programs to pass muster before the bar of impact
SOURCES OF PROGRAM FAILURES
Starting with the conviction that the many findings of zero impact are real,
we are led inexorably to the conclusion that the faults must lie in the
programs. Three kinds of failure can be identified, each a major source of
the observed lack of impact:
The first two types of faults that lead a program to fail stem from
problems in social science theory and the third is a problem in the
organization of social programs:
I. Faults in Problem Theory: The program is built upon a faulty understanding
of the social processes that give rise to the problem to
which the social program is ostensibly addressed;
2. Faults in Program Theory: The program is built upon a faulty
understanding of how to translate problem theory into specific
3. Faults in Program Implementation: There are faults in the organizations,
resources levels and/or activities that are used to deliver
the program to its intended beneficiaries.
Note that the term theory is used above in a fairly loose way to cover all
sorts of empirically grounded generalized knowledge about a topic, and is
not limited to formal propositions.
Every social program, implicitly or explicitly is based on some understanding
of the social problem involved and some understanding of the
program. If one fails to arrive at an appropriate understanding of either,
the program in question will undoubtedly fail. In addition, every program
is given to some organization to implement. Failures to provide enough
resources, or to insure that the program is delivered with sufficient fidelity
can also lead to findings of ineffectiveness.
Problem theory consists of the body of empirically tested understanding
of the social problem that underlies the design of the program in
question. For example, the problem theory that was the underpinning for
the many attempts at prisoner rehabilitation tried in the last two decades
was that criminality was a personality disorder. Even though there was a
lot of evidence for this viewpoint, it also turned out that the theory is not
relevant either to understanding crime rates or to the design of crime
policy. The changes in crime rates do not reflect massive shifts in personality
characteristics of the American population, nor does the personality
disorder theory of crime lead to clear implications for crime reduction
policies. Indeed, it is likely that large scale personality changes are beyond
the reach of social policy institutions in a democratic society.
The adoption of this theory is quite understandable. For example, how
else do we account for the fact that persons seemingly exposed to the
same influences do not show the same criminal (or noncriminal) tendencies?
But the theory is not useful for understanding the social distribution
of crime rates by gender, socio-economic level, or by age.
Program theory links together the activities that constitute a social
program and desired program outcomes. Obviously, program theory is
also linked to problem theory, but is partially independent. For example,
given the problem theory that diagnosed criminality is a personality disorder,
a matching program theory would have as its aims personality
change oriented therapy. But there are many specific ways in which
therapy can be defined and at many different points in the life history of
individuals. At the one extreme of the lifeline, one might attempt preventive
mental health work directed toward young children: at the other
extreme, one might provide psychiatric treatment for prisoners or set up
therapeutic groups in prison for convicted offenders.
The third major source of failure is organizational in character and has
to do with the failure to implement properly programs. Human services
programs are notoriously difficult to deliver appropriately to the appropriate
clients. A well designed program that is based on correct problem and
program theories may simply be implemented improperly, including not
implementing any program at all. Indeed, in the early days of the War on
Proverty, many examples were found of non-programs-the failure to
implement anything at all.
Note that these three sources of failure are nested to some degree:
1. An incorrect understanding of the social problem being addressed
is clearly a major failure that invalidates a correct program theory
and an excellent implementation.
2. No matter how good the problem theory may be, an inappropriate
program theory will lead to failure.
3. And, no matter how good the problem and program theories, a
poor implementation will also lead to failure.
Sources of Theory Failure
A major reason for failures produced through incorrect problem and
program theories lies in the serious under-development of policy related
social science theories in many of the basic disciplines. The major problem
with much basic social science is that social scientists have tended to
ignore policy related variables in building theories because policy related
variables account for so little of the variance in the behavior in question.It
does not help the construction of social policy any to know that a major
determinant of criminality is age, because there is little, if anything, that
policy can do about the age distribution of a population, given a committment
to our current democratic, liberal values. There are notable exceptions
to this generalization about social science: economics and political
science have always been closely attentive to policy considerations; this
indictment concerns mainly such fields as sociology, anthropology and
Incidentally, this generalization about social science and social scientists
should warn us not to expect too much from changes in social policy.
This implication is quite important and will be taken up later on in this
But the major reason why programs fail through failures in problem and
program theories is that the designers of programs are ordinarily amateurs
who know even less than the social scientists! There are numerous examples
of social programs that were concocted by well meaning amateurs
(but amateurs nevertheless). A prime example are Community Mental
Health Centers, an invention of the Kennedy administration, apparently
undertaken without any input from the National Institute of Mental
Health, the agency that was given the mandate to administer the program.
Similarly with Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and
its successor, the current Job Partnership Training Act (JPTA) program,
both of which were designed by rank amateurs and then given over to the
Department of Labor to run and administer. Of course, some of the
amateurs were advised by social scientists about the programs in question,
so the social scientists are not completely blameless.
The amateurs in question are the legislators, judicial officials, and other
policy makers who initiate policy and program changes. The main problem
with amateurs lies not so much in their amateur status but in the fact
that they may know little or nothing about the problem in question or
about the programs they design. Social science may not be an extraordinarily
well developed set of disciplines, but social scientists do know
something about our society and how it works, knowledge that can prove
useful in the design of policy and programs that may have a chance to be
Our social programs seemingly are designed by procedures that lie
somewhere in between setting monkeys to typing mindlessly on typewriters
in the hope that additional Shakespearean plays will eventually be
produced, and Edisonian trial-and-error procedures in which one tactic
after another is tried in the hope of finding out some method that works.
Although the Edisonian paradigm is not highly regarded as a scientific
strategy by the philosophers of science, there is much to recommend it in
a historical period in which good theory is yet to develop. It is also a
strategy that allows one to learn from errors. Indeed, evaluation is very
much a part of an Edisonian strategy of starting new programs, and
attempting to learn from each trial.
PROBLEM THEORY FAILURES
One of the more persistent failures in problem theory is to under-estimate
the complexity of the social world. Most of the social problems with which
we deal are generated by very complex causal processes involving interactions
of a very complex sort among societal level, community level, and
individual level processes. In all likelihood there are biological level processes
involved as well, however much our liberal ideology is repelled by
the idea. The consequence of under-estimating the complexity of the
problem is often to over-estimate our abilities to affect the amount and
course of the problem. This means that we are overly optimistic about how
much of an effect even the best of social programs can expect to achieve. It
also means that we under-design our evaluations, running the risk of
committing Type II errors: that is, not having enough statistical power in
our evaluation research designs to be able to detect reliably those small
effects that we are likely to encounter.
It is instructive to consider the example of the problem of crime in our
society. In the last two decades, we have learned a great deal about the
crime problem through our attempts by initiating one social program aft~r
another to halt the rising crime rate in our society. The end result of this
series of trials has largely failed to have significant impacts on the crime
rates. The research effort has yielded a great deal of empirical knowledge
about crime and criminals. For example, we now know a great deal about
the demographic characteristics of criminals and their victims. But, we
still have only the vaguest ideas about why the crime rates rose so steeply
in the period between 1970 and 1980 and, in the last few years, have started
what appears to be a gradual decline. We have also learned that the
criminal justice system has been given an impossible task to perform and,
indeed, practices a wholesale form of deception in which everyone acquiesces.
It has been found that most perpetrators of most criminal acts go
undetected, when detected go unprosecuted, and when prosecuted go
unpunished, Furthermore, most prosecuted and sentenced criminals are
dealt with by plea bargaining procedures that are just in the last decade
getting formal recognition as occurring at all. After decades of sub-rosa
existence, plea bargaining is beginning to get official recognition in the
criminal code and judicial interpretations of that code.
But most of what we have learned in the past two decades amounts to a
better description of the crime problem and the criminal justice system as
it presently functions. There is simply no doubt about the importance of
this detailed information: it is going to be the foundation of our understanding
of crime; but, it is not yet the basis upon which to build policies
and programs that can lessen the burden of crime in our society.
Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the descriptive and
evaluative researches of the past two decades is that crime and criminals
appear to be relatively insensitive to the range of policy and program
changes that have been evaluated in this period. This means that the
prospects for substantial improvements in the crime problem appear to be
slight, unless we gain better theoretical understanding of crime and criminals.
That is why the Iron Law of Evaluation appears to be an excellent
generalization for the field of social programs aimed at reducing crime and
leading criminals to the straight and narrow way of life. The knowledge
base for developing effective crime policies and programs simply does not
exist; and hence in this field, we are condemned-hopefully temporarilyto
Edisonian trial and error.
PROGRAM THEORY AND IMPLEMENTATION FAILURES
As defined earlier, program theory failures are translations of a proper
understanding of a problem into inappropriate programs, and program
implementation failures arise out of defects in the delivery system used.
Although in principle it is possible to distinguish program theory failures
from program implementation failures, in practice it is difficult to do so.
For example, a correct program may be incorrectly delivered, and hence
would constitute a “pure” example of implementation failure, but it would
be difficult to identify this case as such, unless there were some instances
of correct delivery. Hence both program theory and program implementation
failures will be discussed together in this section.
These kinds of failure are likely the most common causes of ineffective
programs in many fields. There are many ways in which program theory
and program implementation failures can occur. Some of the more common
ways are listed below.
This occurs when the treatment is simply a seriously flawed translation
of the problem theory into a program. One of the best examples is the
housing allowance experiment in which the experimenters attempted to
motivate poor households to move into higher quality housing by offering
them a rent subsidy, contingent on their moving into housing that met
certain quality standards (Struyk and Bendick, 1981). The experimenters
found that only a small portion of the poor households to whom this offer
was made actually moved to better housing and thereby qualified for and
received housing subsidy payments. After much econometric calculation,
this unexpected outcome was found to have been apparently generated by
the fact that the experimenters unfortunately did not take into account
that the costs of moving were far from zero. When the anticipated dollar
benefits from the subsidy were compared to the net benefits, after taking
into account the costs of moving, the net benefits were in a very large
proportion of the cases uncomfortably close to zero and in some instances
negative. Furthermore, the housing standards applied almost totally
missed the point. They were technical standards that often characterized
housing as sub-standard that was quite acceptable to the households
involved. In other words, these were standards that were regarded as
irrelevant by the clients. It was unreasonable to assume that households
would undertake to move when there was no push of dissatisfaction from
the housing occupied and no substantial net positive benefit in dollar
terms for doing so. Incidentally, the fact that poor families with little
formal education were able to make decisions that were consistent with
the outcomes of highly technical econometric calculations improves one’s
appreciation of the innate intellectual abilities of that population.
Right Treatment But Insufficient Dosage
A very recent set of trial policing programs in Houston, Texas and
Newark, New Jersey exemplifies how programs may fail not so much
because they were administering the wrong treatment but because the
treatment was frail and puny (Police Foundation, 1985). Part of the goals of
the program was to produce a more positive evaluation of local police
departments in the views of local residents. Several different treatments
were attempted. In Houston, the police attempted to meet the presumed
needs of victims of crime by having a police officer call them up a week of
so after a crime complaint was received to ask “how they were doing” and
to offer help in “any way.” Over a period of a year, the police managed to
contact about 230 victims, but the help they could offer consisted mainly
of referrals to other agencies. Furthermore, the crimes in question were
mainly property thefts without personal contact between victims and
offenders, with the main request for aid being requests to speed up the
return of their stolen property. Anyone who knows even a little bit about
property crime in the United States would know that the police do little or
nothing to recover stolen property mainly because there is no way they can
do so. Since the callers from the police department could not offer any
substantial aid to remedy the problems caused by the crimes in question,
the treatment delivered by the program was essentially zero. It goes
without saying that those contacted by the police officers did not differ
from randomly selected controls-who had also been victimized but who
had not been called by the police-in their evaluation of the Houston
It seems likely that the treatment administered, namely expressions of
concern for the victims of crime, administered in a personal face-to-face
way, would have been effective if the police could have offered substantial
help to the victims.
Counter-acting Delivery System
It is obvious that any program consists not only of the treatment
intended to be delivered, but it also consists of the delivery system and
whatever is done to clients in the delivery of services. Thus the income
maintenance experiments’ treatments consist not only of the payments,
but the entire system of monthly income reports required of the clients,
the quarterly interviews and the annual income reviews, as well as the
payment system and its rules. In that particular case, it is likely that the
payments dominated the payment system, but in other cases that might
not be so, with the delivery system profoundly altering the impact of the
Perhaps the most egregious example was the group counselling program
run in California prisons during the 1960s (Kassebaum, Ward, and
Wilner, 1972). Guards and other prison employees were used as counseling
group leaders, in sessions in which all participants-prisoners and
guards-were asked to be frank and candid with each other! There are
many reasons for the abysmal failure3 of this program to affect either
criminals’ behavior within prison or during their subsequent period of
parole, but among the leading contenders for the role of villain was the
prison system’s use of guards as therapists.
Another example is the failure of transitional aid payments to released
prisoners when the payment system was run by the state employment
security agency, in contrast to the strong positive effect found when run by
researchers (Rossi, Berk, and Lenihan, 1980). In a randomized experiment
run by social researchers in Baltimore, the provision of 3 months of
minimal support payments lowered the re-arrest rate by 8 percent, a small
decrement, but a significant one that was calculated to have very high cost
to benefit ratios. When, the Department of Labor wisely decided that
another randomized experiment should be run to see whether YOAA”
Your Ordinary American Agency”-could achieve the same results,
large scale experiments in Texas and Georgia showed that putting the
treatment in the hands of the employment security agencies in those two
states cancelled the positive effects of the treatment. The procedure which
produced the failure was a simple one: the payments were made contingent
on being unemployed, as the employment security agencies usually
administered unemployment benefits, creating a strong work disincentive
effect with the unfortunate consequence of a longer period of unemployment
for experimentals as compared to their randomized controls and
hence a higher than expected re-arrest rate.
Pilot and Production Runs
The last example can be subsumed under a more general point — namely,
given that a treatment is effective in a pilot test does not mean that
when turned over to YOAA, effectiveness can be maintained. This is the
lesson to be derived from the transitional aid experiments in Texas and
Georgia and from programs such as The Planned Variation teaching demonstration.
In the latter program leading teaching specialists were asked to
develop versions of their teaching methods to be implemented in actual
school systems. Despite generous support and willing cooperation from
their schools, the researchers were unable to get workable versions of
their teaching strategies into place until at least a year into the running of
the program. There is a big difference between running a program on a
small scale with highly skilled and very devoted personnel and running a
program with the lesser skilled and less devoted personnel that YOAA
ordinarily has at its disposal. Programs that appear to be very promising
when run by the persons who developed them, often turn out to be
disappointments when turned over to line agencies.
Inadequate Reward System
The internally defined reward system of an organization has a strong
effect on what activities are assiduously pursued and those that are
characterized by “benign neglect.” The fact that an agency is directed to
engage in some activity does not mean that it will do so unless the reward
system within that organization actively fosters compliance. Indeed, there
are numerous examples of reward systems that do not foster compliance.
Perhaps one of the best examples was the experience of several police
departments with the decriminalization of public intoxification. Both the
District of Columbia and Minneapolis-among other jurisdictions-rescinded
their ordinances that defined public drunkenness as misdemeanors,
setting up detoxification centers to which police were asked to
bring persons who were found to be drunk on the streets. Under the old
system, police patrols would arrest drunks and bring them into the local
jail for an overnight stay. The arrests so made would “count” towards the
department measures of policing activity. Patrolmen were motivated
thereby to pick up drunks and book them into the local jail, especially in
periods when other arrest opportunities were slight. In contrast, under the
new system, the handling of drunks did not count towards an officer’s
arrest record. The consequence: Police did not bring drunks into the new
detoxification centers and the municipalities eventually had to set up
separate service systems to rustle up clients for the dextoxification
The illustrations given above should be sufficient to make the general
point that the apropriate implementation of social programs is a problematic
matter. This is especially the case for programs that rely on persons to
deliver the service in question. There is no doubt that federal, state, and
local agencies can calculate and deliver checks with precision and efficiency.
There also can be little doubt that such agencies can maintain a
physical infra-structure that delivers public services efficiently, even
though there are a few examples of the failure of water and sewer systems
on scales that threaten public health. But there is a lot of doubt that human
services that are tailored to differences among individual clients can be
done well at all on a large scale basis.
We know that public education is not doing equally well in facilitating
the learning of all children. We know that our mental health system does
not often succeed in treating the chronically mentally ill in a consistent
and effective fashion. This does not mean that some children cannot be
educated or that the chronically mentally ill cannot be treated-it does
mean that our ability to do these activities on a mass scale is somewhat in
This paper started out with a recital of the several metallic laws stating
that evaluations of social programs have rarely found them to be effective
in achieving their desired goals. The discussion modified the metallic laws
to express them as statistical tendencies rather than rigid and inflexible
laws to which all evaluations must strictly adhere. In this latter sense, the
laws simply do not hold. However, when stripped of their rigidity, the laws
can be seen to be valid as statistical generalizations, fairly accurately
representing what have been the end results of evaluations “on-the-average.”
In short, few large-scale social programs have been found to be even
minimally effective. There have been even fewer programs found to be spectacularly
effective. There are no social science equivalents of the Salk vaccine.
Were this conclusion the only message of this paper, then it would tell a
dismal tale indeed. But there is a more important message in the examination
of the reasons why social programs fail so often. In this connection,
the paper pointed out two deficiencies:
First, policy relevant social science theory that should be the intellectual
underpinning of our social policies and programs is either deficient or
simply missing. Effective social policies and programs cannot be designed
consistently until it is thoroughly understood how changes in policies and
programs can affect the social problems in question. The social policies
and programs that we have tested have been designed, at best, on the basis
of common sense and perhaps intelligent guesses, a weak foundation for
the construction of effective policies and programs.
In order to make progress, we need to deepen our understanding of the
long range and proximate causation of our social problems and our understanding
about how active interventions might alleviate the burdens of
those problems. This is not simply a call for more funds for social science
research but also a call for a redirection of social science research toward
understanding how public policy can affect those problems.
Second, in pointing to the frequent failures in the implementation of
social programs, especially those that involve labor intensive delivery of
services, we may also note an important missing professional activity in
those fields. The physical sciences have their engineering counterparts;
the biological sciences have their health care professionals; but social
science has neither an engineering nor a strong clinical component. To be
sure, we have clinical psychology, education, social work, public administration,
and law as our counterparts to engineering, but these are only
weakly connected with basic social science. What is apparently needed is
a new profession of social and organizational engineering devoted to the
design of human services delivery systems that can deliver treatments
with fidelity and effectiveness.
In short, the double message of this paper is an argument for
further development of policy relevant basic social science and the establishment
of the new profession of social engineer.
I. Note that the law emphasizes that it applied primarily to “large scale” social
programs, primarily those that are implemented by an established governmental agency
covering a region or the nation as a whole. It does not apply to small scale demonstrations or to programs run by their designers.
2. Unfortunately, it has proven difficult to stop large scale programs even when evaluations prove them to be ineffective. The federal job training programs seem remarkably resistant to the almost consistent verdicts of ineffectiveness. This limitation on the Edisonian paradigm arises out of the tendency for large scale programs to accumulate staff and clients that have extensive stakes in the program’s continuation.
3. This is a complex example in which there are many competing explanations for the
failure of the program. In the first place, the program may be a good example of the failure of problem theory since the program was ultimately based on a theory of criminal behavior as psychopathology. In the second place, the program theory may have been at fault for employing counselling as a treatment. This example illustrates how difficult it is to separate out the three sources of program failures in specific instances.
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