Governments are naturally reluctant to subject their programs, especially those involving individual welfare handouts, to rigorous impact evaluation. What happens if the program is found to have not delivered on what it promised? This has confined academic researchers and program evaluators to analysing programs funded by Non-Governmental Organizations and multi-lateral institutions and thereby seriously limited their canvas of study. However, I am inclined to believe that it may be an electorally prudent strategy for governments and ruling party representatives to embrace program evaluations like randomized control trials (RCT). Here is why.
Program evaluation by way of RCTs can be beneficial for politicians facing elections besides providing valuable learnings about the impacts of various development program components. RCTs perforce divides the target group into two randomly distributed treatment and control groups. In other words, one half is administered the welfare benefit while the other half is denied the same.
The situation is tailor-made for the ruling party politician to offer the incentive of extending the program to the other half in return for re-electing him. This is likely to over-ride any ill-effects of them having been denied the first chance of sharing in the benefits of the program. They can also be incentivized with the prospect of a revamped program that is more effectively administered and whose punch for the beneficiary is greater, a result of the lessons learnt from the RCT evaluations. Presumably, the first half should be happy in two ways - at benefitting from the program and more so when his neighbour has not!
Interestingly, by the same logic, randomized phasing of welfare programs will also contribute towards the sustainability of the program even in the case of a government change. The overall success of the program in delivering welfare benefits and the fact that half the group have not got their share of the benefits will maintain the pressure on the new government to continue the program, if only to deliver the benefits to those hitherto denied their share.
Randomization into two (or more) groups is also beneficial to the ruling party in so far as they can now more optimally utilize the scarce resources available by covering only one-half of the population without losing the loyalty of the other half. They can therefore use the same resources to now cover two or more programs. Further, since the beneficiaries are randomly and transparently selected, instead of the usual partisan manner, the government may find it easier to rationalize away any discontent amongst those denied the benefits.
However, it is important that on the net, these programs deliver substantial benefits to those in the treatment group. This is rarely a problem since any new welfare program would deliver some benefit or the other to its beneficiaries, in its own ineffcient and poorly targeted manner. The challenge is only to design it to deliver the greatest bang for the buck and to the specific target group.
This approach was adopted in Mexico when the PROGRESA Conditional Cash Transfer scheme was first launched in 1998 in only half of the 506 targeted communities. It has been claimed that the randomized phase-in of the program (and the resultant ability to incrementally make changes based on the results of the RCT results) has played a major role in ensuring the continuity of the program despite the governmental change in 2000.