Scaling Programs Effectively: Two New Books on Potential Pitfalls and the Tools to Avoid Them

By David Evans 

“Interventions that are effective at scale are the golden nuggets of public policy: valuable, rare, and even apparent winners are often revealed to be fool’s gold. They can be so challenging to find that you could be tempted to throw up your hands and say that “Nothing scales!” While that’s an overstatement (many interventions have had positive impacts at scale), there are also many, many failures. What factors drive the drop (or, in some cases, disappearance) of impacts as programs go from pilot to scale, and how can we avoid them?

Two recent books seek to add to this conversation. Last year’s The Scale-Up Effect in Early Childhood and Public Policy: Why Interventions Lose Impact at Scale and What We Can Do About It (edited by List, Suskind, and Supplee) and this year’s The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale (by John List). While the first is ostensibly focused on early childhood, the principles—and even some of the chapters—have broad application to public policy programs. The books overlap in their focus (scaling effectively) but differ enormously in their tone and audience. The former is moderately technical, geared towards researchers, program implementers, and maybe a bold policymaker. The latter seeks to reach a general audience, highlighting the basic principles of scaling through stories.”

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