Dr. Jen Brooks, Director of the Center for Impact Sciences

In 2021, the Center for Impact Sciences at the University of Chicago launched a ground-breaking cross-agency initiative with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to investigate the potential for using standardized impact taxonomies in federal policymaking. The aim of this initiative is to explore new tools for policymakers that enable them to use evidence to “predict” the outcomes for social programs.

To lead this initiative, the Center tapped Jennifer Brooks. Brooks earned an MA in Public Policy from Harris and a PhD and MSc in Human Development and Family Studies from Penn State University. Post-graduation, Brooks gained considerable experience in strategy, metrics, and evaluation with large foundations and government agencies, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Head Start. Beyond her current leadership at the Center, she is an independent consultant and senior advisor at Project Evident, where she empowers philanthropy, government, and non-profits to maximize impact through better use of data and evidence.

In this edited conversation, Brooks addresses the Center for Impact Sciences’ practical approach to creating accessible, actionable evidence to better inform policies impacting children, families, individuals, and the broader society.

What’s your 30-second description of the Center for Impact Sciences?

The Center takes on important questions of evidence-based policy and practice through the lens of the end users: what information would be most useful to them in making decisions going forward? This is quite a bit different than how it’s typically done, where “evidence-based” is mostly retrospective analysis.

In this way, we are making evidenced-based analysis more accessible and actionable for policymakers by better attending to the needs of those in their organizations who do the day-to-day work of translating “evidence” into policy. The Center is one of the only places that actively thinks about evidence-based policymaking like this, prospectively.

You came to the Center in 2021, joining Executive Director Jason Saul and Associated Faculty/Academic Director John A. List. What is your role?

My focus at the Center is primarily with the Federal Core Components Working Group, which is a peer learning group of about 30-35 people from across the executive branch of the US Federal government. A contract between Harris and the Department of Health and Human Services brought me on through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA), an assignment of personnel between the Federal Government, state and local governments, and colleges and universities.

I facilitate monthly virtual meetings for group members to learn from each other—participants share what they are doing within their respective agencies, their challenges, and their knowledge. Most working groups tend to be comprised of staff from a singular agency, so our diverse group is particularly valuable; this push to advance cross-agency dialogue is not the norm in the field.

What are “core components” and how does this effort differ from conventional policy work?

Traditionally, policy research has focused on producing “program models” that come with training instructions. This approach has moved the field quite far, but not all situations call for a fully packaged, specific program model that is ready to deploy. Oftentimes, these prescriptive programs are based on feelings and ideology.

Instead, we need to shift attention to what is most useful to the end users of the evidence - how we get the right kind of evidence disseminated so that an agency, evaluator, grantee or other user, can actually act on it. In effect, we need to focus on core components—the active, often bite-size ingredients of actionable policy and interventions that drive outcomes.

Core components are a big part of Evidence 2.0 (the tagline for the next generation of evidence-based policy). Evidence 2.0 is all about tailoring evidence to users, breaking data down into practical, actionable, digestible pieces instead of generating a formal curriculum.

How is your group advancing government agencies’ focus on core components?

We are the first to conduct an agency landscape—a scan of publicly funded projects in the Federal Government that promote core components work. Members of the peer group tend to reflect human services, education, labor, and health-related agencies; while our landscape is not exhaustive, we have discovered around 20 recent and current projects about which we recorded every detail.

We then use this information to create tangible resources that group members can share with their agencies as they think through future program and funding decisions. This cross-agency transparency and collaboration enables us to see if another agency has already done the legwork on a topic we are interested in pursuing.

What do these sharable resources look like?

Our Core Components 101 overview, designed to help members introduce core components projects to their colleagues, includes talking points, basic definitions, examples of scaled models, and suggestions about how to use core components to enhance equity in evidence-based policy. I’ve also provided an easily accessible compilation of publications, videos, and presentations from agencies and the broader field.

Now that the agency landscape has been finalized, we will create a set of case studies that outline in detail how agencies have promoted core components in their work. Each case study will include a high-level summary and deep details about the impetus for the project, how it was designed and implemented—such as the contractor, deadlines, deliverables—and lessons learned. Agencies can use these studies to build on what others have already done, ultimately advancing science more efficiently and effectively.

Why are these cross-agency conversations unique?

While individuals across agencies often know of each other, they don’t always know details of their projects. It can be difficult to share information across federal agencies, not only because everyone is so busy, but also because each agency tends to approach issues from unique disciplinary and theoretical frameworks and with different language.

It has been important to create the time and space for the group to identify and address these differences, as well as discover commonalities in their policy work. Members have been highly collaborative, sharing their agencies’ work and helping each other build resources they wouldn’t have time to do on their own.

The concept of these government agencies talking to each other isn’t that sexy, but it is an underappreciated opportunity in public policy. It is easier to make flashy new policy; the harder thing is the joint work to reframe what already exists around the needs of the users. Carving out time for good dialogue can drive more work in this area and further common interest.

You have an MA in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. What does it mean to return as a director at the Center?

I’ve been excited to reengage with Harris. Through my role here, I’m able to connect the ever-important behind-the-scenes civil servants who do the day-to-day work of translating evidence into policy.

In addition to my IPA work at the Center, I also supervise a few fellows in the Child and Family Studies program. Harris is one of the only schools that offers a program like this, and it is hugely meaningful. I have a lot of appreciation for the school and my ties here, and I am happy to talk with anyone who wants to learn more or get involved.

Anything else the Harris community should know about the Federal Core Components Working Group?

Through our detailed exploration of what our federal agencies do and how core components are incorporated into this work, we are tackling both the broader issue of core components and the specific question of how the federal government itself can further contribute to the field.

The Center is uniquely positioned to tackle the challenge of generating evidence that can be applied, an issue that has not garnered wide attention. The more visible the Center and Harris are in the landscape of evidence-based policy, the greater our impact on research and outcomes in public policy.

There are many opportunities for students to get involved in the Center’s research – from data science and computational modeling to taxonomy development to real-world applications in policymaking.  The Center offers research opportunities quarterly.  Check out the center's website to get involved.

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