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Step by step, workers in the White House budget office are getting more fit. For the last three months, budget office employees have been counting their steps in an effort to encourage more physical activity.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports it's a small but telling example of how the Obama administration relies on intensive data gathering to help shape behavior.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The White House Office of Management and Budget launched its pedometer challenge back in October, on the first day of the new fiscal year. Budget Director, Peter Orszag, explained the idea in a jaunty homemade video.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. PETER ORSZAG (Director, White House Office of Management and Budget): The basic idea is that we all wear these pedometers and they measure daily activities. When you measure something and have a competition surrounding it, it creates a strong incentive to do more of it.

HORSLEY: Evidence shows pedometers are one of the most cost-effective ways to increase physical activity. Orszag said at the time and in true OMB fashion, we like to walk down the path cleared by the best data. 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. President Obama told the American Medical Association last summer part of what ails the country's health care system is a lack of data.

President BARACK OBAMA: We're not doing a very good job harnessing our collective knowledge and experience on behalf of better medicine. Less than one percent of our health care spending goes to examining what treatments are most effective, less than one percent.

HORSLEY: The administration is trying to change that, setting aside more than a billion dollars 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.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): 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. 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.

HORSLEY: The nonprofit Education Trust, which also relies on data to improve school performance, applauds the administration for trying to identify the best teachers. The trust's vice president, Amy Wilkins, cautions gathering the information is only the first step.

Ms. AMY WILKINS (Vice President, The Education Trust): We can have reams and reams and reams of data, but unless we have the courage to say to some teachers who are not as strong that you need to get help and you need to 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 says to us, then the data doesn't do us much good.

HORSLEY: 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. Mr. Obama seemed to minimize that challenge when he spoke to the American Medical Association, suggesting if doctors are simply given enough data, they'll automatically do the right thing.

Pres. OBAMA: 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: I have confidence in that.

HORSLEY: 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 even though the data behind that recommendation is solid.

Ms. GAIL WILENSKY (Senior Fellow, Project HOPE): 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.

HORSLEY: Wilensky, who's with the health education foundation Project HOPE, 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.

Ms. WILENSKY: I'm at the school of don't-say-no. Make it expensive.

HORSLEY: Even the Budget Office hasn't relied on measurement alone to get people walking more in 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, OMB workers have logged over 100 million steps and counting.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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