Randomized Controlled Trial Aversion among Public Sector Leadership: A Survey Experiment

Emily Cardon, Leonard Lopoo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: While randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are typically considered the gold standard of program evaluation, they are infrequently chosen by public sector leaders, defined as government and nonprofit decision-makers, when an impact evaluation is required. Objectives: This study provides descriptive evidence on RCT aversion among public sector leaders and attempts to understand what factors affect their likelihood of choosing RCTs for impact evaluations. Research Design: The authors ask if public sector leaders follow similar preference patterns found among non-public sector leaders when choosing either an RCT or a quasi-experimental design and use a survey experiment to determine which factors affect the RCT choice. Subjects: The study sample includes 2050 public sector leaders and a comparison group of 2060 respondents who do not lead public sector organizations. Measures: The primary outcome measure is selecting an RCT as the preferred evaluation option. Results: When asked to make a decision about an impact evaluation, the majority of people do not choose an RCT. While also averse to RCTs, public sector leaders are about 13% more likely to prefer a RCT to a quasi-experimental evaluation compared to the general population. Public sector leaders are less likely to use RCTs for evaluations of more intense interventions, potentially because they are perceived to be superior to the options available for the control group. Conclusion: Funders should be aware that when given a choice, public sector leaders prefer other options to RCTs. Greater awareness of the benefits of RCTs could increase their use in the public sector.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalEvaluation Review
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • public sector evaluation
  • randomized controlled trials
  • survey experiment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Social Sciences


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