Stanford Impact Labs Invests in Partnerships to Modernize Government

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SIL commits $3.5 million over four years to support Stanford’s Regulation, Evaluation, and Governance Lab (RegLab)

Modernize government

Stanford Impact Labs (SIL) is delighted to announce a $3.5 million Stage 3: Amplify Impact investment over four years to support the solutions-focused, partnership-based work of Stanford’s Regulation, Evaluation, and Governance Lab (RegLab). 

RegLab develops partnerships with government agencies to conduct high-impact demonstration projects to modernize government using machine learning and data science. Working closely with partners, RegLab designs, implements, and evaluates programs to improve governance, and works to develop an improved ecosystem for public sector innovation.

As one example, the team partnered with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department during the Covid-19 pandemic to leverage data in support of delivering vital public health resources (community-health workers, accessible testing, improved contact tracing, vaccine delivery, and social assistance) to particularly vulnerable communities. Read more about this collaboration here in the first in a series of articles about how RegLab works to modernize government.

RegLab's key projects include:

  1. Modernizing Tax Administration: The annual tax gap – the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid – is nearly $500B. RegLab developed methods to improve the detection of tax evasion and developed a framework for assessing and mitigating demographic disparities in tax auditing. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has committed to an “overhaul” of audits around the Earned Income Tax Credit, claimed by ~31M taxpayers, based on these findings. RegLab is continuing its partnership to make tax administration more effective and equitable. The lab is also improving the science of disparity assessments, applicable across domains. 
  2. Unemployment Insurance: Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor, RegLab is prototyping methods to modernize the administration of unemployment insurance (UI). Such modernization is acutely needed. To illustrate, while over 90% of UI payments were timely at baseline, timeliness dropped to just above 50% right as the urgency of UI needs spiked with the pandemic, with as many as 46M Americans relying on UI.   
  3. Environmental Sustainability: In 2020, between 60-75% of major facilities permitted under the Clean Water Act self-report​ed being in noncompliance, and as a result, tens of millions of Americans are exposed to pollution hotspots and unsafe drinking water. RegLab is developing partnerships with federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies to develop data-driven compliance systems, including the use of remote sensing and computer vision to develop an environmental monitoring system of the future.
  4. Innovation Ecosystem and Technology Governance: From in-depth collaborations, RegLab advances recommendations for how to improve the public sector innovation ecosystem, such as through talent exchanges, digital infrastructure, and public sector investments. Recommendations in Senate testimony were advanced in the recent AI Executive Order and Office of Management and Budget memorandum

By working closely with agency partners to design and evaluate programs, policies, and technologies that improve compliance, adjudication, policy making, and service provision, RegLab is able to deliver cutting-edge advances to acutely high-need arenas. 

Dollars for Solutions

Established as a special initiative within Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences to accelerate closing the gap between social science research and scalable public impact, SIL invests in research projects that are both impact-driven and partnership-based—like those RegLab takes on.

To date, SIL has invested in a range of what it calls Stage 2: Test Solutions projects with the expectation of a return not in dollars, but in outcomes that improve people’s lives. Anticipating that a select few exceptional teams will establish a track record of running multiple partnership-based research and development (R&D) cycles that position them for even greater impact, SIL developed a Stage 3 funding window that offers long-term flexible funding.

"Recognizing the profound demand for greater investments in solutions to social problems and, in particular, the R&D required to design workable solutions, SIL makes staged and sequenced investments along the path from science to impact. We fund teams at the stage of initial development and piloting of a solution, at the stage of testing that solution in a real-world context, and then ultimately at the place where RegLab is today: positioned for large-scale impact,” explains Michael Eddy, director of investments & accountability at SIL. "We're thrilled to support this team's cutting-edge research and direct engagement with government agencies making decisions that literally affect millions of people."

In 2021, RegLab received Stage 2 funding for Guarding Our Water Supply, a partnership with federal and state EPA agencies to build a program for clean water and environmental compliance. The project’s interdisciplinary team developed and field-tested a classification algorithm to use satellite imagery to detect potentially non-compliant dumping of agricultural waste from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and co-produced a set of statistical tests detecting suspect reporting of pollutants into waterways.

When considering case studies of where social science has successfully benefited society, Eddy notes that teams often want to do one of two things after completing an R&D cycle. Some teams want to put that specific solution to use at scale by replicating and adapting it to new contexts. Others (like RegLab) want to go from running one partnership-based R&D cycle, to running multiple R&D cycles across a common impact-focused research agenda. 

To create support mechanisms for either approach, SIL’s Stage 3 funding window is split into two tracks. Core commitments to science and partnership are vital in both cases. Research teams interested in applying for Stage 3 funding are invited to learn more here.