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January 5, 2004

"bold, persistent experimentation"

I spent today at a meeting, which I had organized, on how to mobilize young voters. Almost half of the participants were nonpartisan practitioners who are trying to increase youth voting in 2004. Another large group were researchers who do "field experiments" on various methods of getting out the vote. In other words, they randomly assign some registered voters to get a "treatment" (such as a phone call), and leave the rest untreated. They then measure the actual difference in voting between the two groups--not using polls, but consulting official voting records. Overall, this highly rigorous method finds that young voters can be mobilized cost-effectively by means of phone banks and door-to-door visits.

We have reported many of these results in the past and will summarize them again shortly. Meanwhile, for me, some of the most interesting results emerged from the work of a Yale graduate student, Andra Gillespie. She said that civil rights organizations are often resistant to testing their voter outreach efforts. They are confident about what they've been doing for generations (even though there's some evidence that it has no effects). It struck me that our society badly needs organizations that are both experimental and also authentically rooted in communities. Such organizations are needed not only in the youth voting area, but more generally.

We have institutions, such as universities and foundations, that are willing and able to test programs, but they have little accountability or credibility. They fly in, test a new program or approach, bless it or condemn it on the basis of their research, and then leave. Because they lack street-level credibility, they have trouble mobilizing people, so they often don�t get great results. Meanwhile, there are organizations that really do represent and serve communities over the long term, but they refuse to subject their methods to tough testing. I can think of very few (if any) organizations that combine credibility and accountability with true experimentalism. I love FDR's New Deal slogan: "bold, persistent experimentation," but we lack the institutions to make this happen.

January 5, 2004 9:50 PM | category: none

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