White House Stresses Results That Can Be Measured

Biden, Obama, Orszag i i

Budget Office Director Peter Orszag (far right) has found a way to turn walking into a competitive sport on Capitol Hill. Here, he walks through the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with Vice President Biden, President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP
Biden, Obama, Orszag

Budget Office Director Peter Orszag (far right) has found a way to turn walking into a competitive sport on Capitol Hill. Here, he walks through the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with Vice President Biden, President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Step by step, workers in the White House budget office are getting more fit.

For the past three months, budget office employees have been wearing pedometers and counting their steps in an effort to encourage more physical activity. It's a small but telling example of how the Obama administration relies on intensive data-gathering to help mold behavior.

"The basic idea is we all wear these pedometers and they measure daily activity," says Peter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. "When you measure something and have a competition surrounding it, it creates a strong incentive to do more of it."

The Pedometer Challenge is typical of Orszag, a number-crunching marathoner whom Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel described as making nerdy sexy. But he's not the only one in the administration turned on by this kind of data-driven exercise. Whether it's health care, education or even the war in Afghanistan, the president and his team are big believers in the power of information.

Results You Can Measure

President Obama told the American Medical Association last summer that part of what ails the country's health care system is a lack of data.

"We're not doing a very good job harnessing our collective knowledge and experience on behalf of better medicine," Obama said. "Less than 1 percent of our health care spending goes to examining what treatments are most effective."

The administration is trying to change that, setting aside more than $1 billion to compare different medical treatments in hopes of learning more about which ones work best.

School districts have also been told to gather better data if they want to qualify for billions in federal education grants. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says tracking students' performance by classroom will provide important clues about which teachers are getting through to kids.

"There are teachers every single year where the average child in their class is gaining two years of growth for a year's instruction. And nobody can tell you who those teachers are," Duncan says.

"Shouldn't we be learning from them? On the flip side of it, if you have teachers or schools where students are falling further and further behind each year, I think we need to know that as well."

There's Data, And Then There's Acting On It

The nonprofit group The Education Trust, which also relies on data to improve school performance, applauds the administration for trying to identify the best teachers. But gathering the information is only the first step.

"We can have reams and reams and reams of data," says Amy Wilkins, vice president of The Education Trust, "but unless we have the courage to say to some teachers who are not as strong, 'You need to get help or improve your practice, or you need to get out of the classroom' ... if we don't have the courage to act on what the data say to us, then the data doesn't do us much good."

Wilkins says that's true of lots of issues, where good data can point you down a path but can't do the walking for you. President Obama seemed to minimize that challenge when he spoke to the American Medical Association, suggesting that if doctors are simply given enough data, they'll automatically do the right thing.

"See, I have the assumption that if you have good information about what makes your patients well, that's what you're going to do," Obama said. "We're not going to need to force you to do it. We just need to make sure you've got the best information available."

Nudging People In The Right Direction

But sometimes, good information is not enough. Health care expert Gail Wilensky points to the recent uproar over a recommendation that women get fewer mammograms, despite the solid data behind that recommendation.

"I'm a little distressed at the response of the public and the media to the guidelines. But it's a reminder of how careful we'll have to be," says Wilensky, who works for the health education foundation Project HOPE.

She says policymakers may have to nudge people to actually follow where the data lead, not by outlawing less-effective medical procedures, but with gentle rewards and penalties.

"I'm of the school of, 'Don’t say no. Make it expensive,' " Wilensky says.

Even the budget office hasn't relied on measurement alone to get people walking more for the Pedometer Challenge.

Small prizes are awarded to those who walk the most and those who show the biggest improvement. So far, the average participant is walking almost 20 percent more than when the contest began. Since October, budget office workers have logged over 100 million steps ... and counting.

  • What Gets Measured Is What Gets Done

  • Office of Management and Budget: In an effort to encourage walking and physical activity, employees have been issued pedometers to count their steps.
  • Education: School districts must gather data on teacher performance in order to qualify for $4.3 billion in federal education grants.
  • Health Care: More than $1 billion has been set aside in the federal stimulus program to measure the effectiveness of different medical treatments.

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