M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 55

Unleashing the potential of randomised controlled trials in Australian governments

Phil Ames and James Wilson
April 2016


The authors (Phil Ames and James Wilson, hereafter ‘we’), have completed this report as our Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE) in our Master in Public Policy degrees at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Our lead advisor is the Hon Dr Andrew Leigh MP, a current Member of the Australian Federal Parliament, the Federal Member for Fraser, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Shadow Minister for Competition for the Australian Labor Party, with a Ph.D. and M.P.A. from Harvard Kennedy School. Leigh is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and has authored numerous books including Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013), The Economics of Just About Everything (2014) and The Luck of Politics (2015).

Leigh is passionate about improving the effectiveness of governments in Australia, and to that end wants to see randomised controlled trials (RCTs) used more often in social policy. As many as 13 years ago, while completing his Ph.D. at Harvard Kennedy School, Leigh wrote a paper on this topic, concluding with the call:

“Australian policymakers should summon up the vigour of their predecessors, and conduct randomised trials on a variety of current and proposed policies — providing evidence on what works, and what does not.”

Now, as one of those policymakers summoning vigour, Leigh put to us the challenge of designing a practical, pragmatic strategy for increasing the use of RCTs in Australian governments. We organized our work around this central question:

What should be the pragmatic strategy for the Australian Federal Government to transition to greater use of RCTs in social policy?

Given the potential for RCTs to improve social policy outcomes not just for the Australian Federal Government, but for governments and agencies across Australia and abroad, we have attempted to make our findings and recommendations of relevance to policymakers and senior public servants across contexts.

While the primary audience for this report is the Australian Federal Government, we intend to distribute our findings and recommendations widely both within Australia and around the world in the hope of supporting a transition to greater use of RCTs in social policy.

Download the paper in PDF format.