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Dr. Angela Hawken. (Photo courtesy of Zócalo Public Square)
Organization Name 
Award Date 
Grant Amount 
To support Dr. Angela Hawken's BetaGov project.
Topic (focus area) 

Note: This page was created using content published by Good Ventures and GiveWell, the organizations that created the Open Philanthropy Project, before this website was launched. Uses of “we” and “our” on this page may therefore refer to Good Ventures or GiveWell, but they still represent the work of the Open Philanthropy Project.

The goal of BetaGov is “to massively increase the number of randomized controlled trials conducted on public policies and programs to guide policy solutions for our most challenging health and social problems.” We made the grant as part of our exploration of criminal justice reform, an area we’ve prioritized for deeper investigation through learning grants.

BetaGov is the project of Dr. Angela Hawken, who is an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, where her research focuses on “drugs, crimes and corruption.”1 We were referred to Dr. Hawken by Steven Teles, who knew about her work leading the randomized controlled trial of HOPE, and by Dr. Kleiman, who has frequently collaborated with her.2

BetaGov aims to generate knowledge about what works in the public sector (in areas including but not limited to criminal justice) by serving as a repository for practitioners’ ideas to be tested, serving as a database of results to facilitate learning across studies, and providing a toolkit (including web-based training, webinars, assessment tools, and an RCT call-in hotline) so that practitioners can conduct their own RCTs.3 Dr. Hawken believes that Ph.D.’s are not necessarily needed to implement randomized controlled trials in all cases, and that by collecting ideas, enabling and encouraging practitioners to conduct RCTs, and sharing the results, BetaGov will dramatically increase the evidence available for public sector programs 4

At the time we began funding BetaGov, Dr. Hawken was already working with two jurisdictions seeking to test out variations on swift-and certain sanctions (Washington State and a jurisdiction in a western state), suggesting that there is demand for BetaGov’s service.5

Dr. Hawken’s rough estimate is that BetaGov’s full budget would be “on the order of $2 million for a five-year period.”6 We hope to make BetaGov’s budget and proposal public shortly.

We are interested in promoting an attitude toward the criminal justice system (and public policy in general) that values evidence and outcomes. Facilitating randomized controlled trials by practitioners seems like a good way to encourage this approach among policymakers and implementers on the ground. We believe that BetaGov’s efforts to increase the evidence base in the field of criminal justice may be an important complement to our other efforts to take advantage of the bipartisan interest in policy change in this field.7 We have therefore made a $200,000 grant to Pepperdine University to provide BetaGov with seed funding. We plan to follow up with BetaGov and would consider providing additional funding if the project is successful.

Read more:

  • Angela Hawken’s Faculty Page
  • Sources

    • 1.

      “Her research interests are primarily in drugs, crime, and corruption.” Angela Hawken homepage

    • 2.

      • Another guy to read about this is Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy/Department of Criminology, and someone else is Angela Hawken at Pepperdine. There’s enormous amount of absorptive capacity in this space. Those two and Kleiman could be out doing field work, varying treatments, etc. but there’s very little funding. Check out their evaluation of the Hawaii HOPE program. GiveWell’s notes on a June 12, 2013 conversation with Steve Teles
      • Other people to talk to … Angela Hawken – Associate Professor at Pepperdine University. She has done a lot of the research on the HOPE program and could share much of the evidence from that project and talk about the funding landscape of criminal justice and drug policy. GiveWell’s notes on a July 2, 2013 conversation with Mark Kleiman

    • 3.

      “To create a larger and more diverse database of crime-reduction approaches, we propose creating a Center for Practitioner-Led Trials (CPT). The purpose of the Center would be to offer an array of training and services to expand the number of practitioners and jurisdictions that are conducting small, but rigorous trials of innovative practices. These include web-based training, monthly webinars on topical issues (which will be archived), assessment tools (sample-size recommendations, templates for data entry, randomization tools, scoring software), and an RCT call-in hotline to offer additional support to practitioners using the RCT tools, to help practitioners test promising ideas new approaches to running their operations.

      In addition, the Center would provide recommendations for tracking core outcome measures (to facilitate comparisons across trials) and automated prompts to remind practitioners to update outcomes data at key follow-up points. The goal would be to help launch hundreds of simple, practitioner-initiated pilot RCTs, none of which would be perfect but would, in aggregate, provide evidence of which kinds of approaches (or changes to operational procedures) are worthy of further study and which are not. The Center would also serve as a clearinghouse of promising ideas. We regularly meet practitioners who have great ideas, but who are not known to researchers interested in corrections interventions. The market for innovative corrections practices suffers neither from inadequate supply nor insufficient demand, but from an information disconnect, which this Center would help obviate.” BetaGov proposal, pgs. 2-3.

    • 4.

      • “There is a strange irony in the dependence on academia to stimulate a concerted hunt for effective interventions: although it may take a Ph.D. to find trends and control for confounds in quasi- experimental data, the strongest design—a randomized controlled trial (RCT)—is the easiest to analyze. With a little help, anyone can do it—at least at the pilot level.” BetaGov proposal, pg. 2.
      • By collecting ideas, enabling and encouraging practitioners to conduct RCTs, and sharing the results, BetaGov will dramatically increase the evidence available for public sector programs. GiveWell’s notes on a September 16, 2013 with Angela Hawken.

    • 5.

      A jurisdiction in a western state wanted to run a trial of the HOPE program (with random drug testing once per month instead of six times per month), but didn’t have additional funds for the research. Rather than apply for funding from the National Institute of Justice and delay the trial, Hawken’s team helped the jurisdiction implement the trial immediately using their own resources and data it was already collecting. The trial was completed in short order and did not replicate HOPE’s success. The trial did not cost the agency any additional funding.

      Hawken’s team is helping this same state with another RCT as well.


      Hawken’s team is currently doing a substantial amount of work with Washington State. Washington is innovative and eager to test its programs, and Hawken’s team is working closely alongside practitioners there to launch RCTs of variations of HOPE. For example, varying the frequency of drug testing and the length of sanctions. The goal of the Washington RCTs is to find the least-intrusive testing schedule and minimum sanctions that still achieve the desired behavior change.

      Washington rolled out its version of HOPE across the entire state in a few months; more than ten thousand offenders were enrolled in the program. Hawken noted that this is the largest transformation in community corrections that she’s seen in her career. She initially predicted the statewide rollout would fail (she was of the opinion that the large-scale effort would overwhelm community corrections and law enforcement). Having observed the experience in Washington closely, she now believes that the expansion has gone fairly well. She attributes this to good leadership from DOC management and an inspired implementation team who helped coordinate the participation of the thousands of people who are involved in implementing the program. GiveWell’s notes on a September 16, 2013 with Angela Hawken.

    • 6.

      Angela Hawken email to GiveWell on September 17, 2013

    • 7.

      “There has always been a need for more rigorous research on crime reduction, but the current need is underscored by the widespread agreement that publicly funded crime-reduction approaches should be “evidence based.” This is a critical issue: at a time when there appears to be unprecedented bipartisan support to expand rehabilitative programs for offenders, there is a dearth of rigorously vetted program options from which to choose.” BetaGov proposal, pg. 2.

    Angela Hawken email to GiveWell on September 17, 2013Unpublished
    Angela Hawken homepageSource (archive)
    BetaGov proposalUnpublished
    GiveWell’s notes on a July 2, 2013 conversation with Mark KleimanSource
    GiveWell’s notes on a June 12, 2013 conversation with Steve TelesSource
    GiveWell’s notes on a September 16, 2013 with Angela HawkenSource