Feds can learn lessons from states about using data to inform policy

By Ingrid Schroeder
from The Hill

“Without evidence, the federal government is an ineffective fiduciary on behalf of the taxpayer.” That’s the conclusion of a congressional report accompanying legislation, co-written by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), that establishes a federal Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission. The legislation, which received bipartisan support, was enacted in March.

The report also notes, “in many instances, federal decision-makers do not have access to the data necessary to best inform decisions.”

Many states, however, have developed innovative approaches for using data to inform policy, approaches that federal decision-makers can learn from and emulate. The members of the new commission — tasked with studying how the use of data can be improved — should consider these successful and established state practices.

States can use program evaluations published by eight national clearinghouses, including three run by the U.S. Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services. But these clearinghouses are only as effective as the information they publish. If a program is never evaluated, or the results of the evaluation are not reported, policymakers won’t have the evidence they need to make budget decisions that are informed by data and make the best use of limited taxpayer dollars. The Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission will be uniquely positioned to help arm policymakers with better data, examining the gaps and deficiencies in these sources and making recommendations to strengthen them.

The growing trend of states using evidence to make program funding decisions is not new. In the 1980s, the Washington State Legislature created the Washington State Institute for Public Policy to serve as a nonpartisan source of data analysis for the state’s policymakers. The organization developed an innovative cost-benefit model to identify evidence-based policies and programs that provide the best return on investment for taxpayers. Legislators from both parties have credited the institute and its cost-benefit analyses with helping them transcend partisan gridlock and make fact-based budget and policy decisions. Unsurprisingly, Washington state — after using this approach for more than 30 years — is widely considered a leader in the field of evidence-based policymaking.

Since 2010, 22 states and five counties have partnered with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative to continue to advance the use of evidence in their budget and policy decisions. To date, participating jurisdictions have not only directed $150 million to evidence-based programs; they have actually closed down programs that don’t work and redeployed the funding. The process for developing systematic and focused evidence-based policymaking includes creating an inventory of currently funded programs; assessing whether these interventions are likely to work based on the best available research; utilizing the customized Results First cost-benefit model to compare programs based on their return on investment; and applying the results to inform budget decisions and policy choices.

New Mexico used this approach to compare the return among programs in criminal and juvenile justice, child welfare, and other key policy areas. The state, through its budget process, directed $104 million to the most effective programs. Moreover, the New Mexico Corrections Department adopted a policy last fall that commits the agency to maintaining an inventory of its programs and mandates that 70 percent of funds be directed to evidence-based programs. The department also adopted contracting standards that require vendors to document their use of evidence-based practices and monitor outcomes for programs that are developed in New Mexico to ensure that they meet the state’s goals.

Similarly, Mississippi passed legislation in 2014 establishing evidence standards for evaluating the state’s corrections, health, education and transportation programs. The state used its Results First analyses to determine that a “shock” incarceration program — a paramilitary, boot-camp intervention — currently required by statute has been proved ineffective by national research. The Mississippi State Legislature subsequently moved to eliminate the program in 2017 and is developing an evidence-based alternative. In addition, the state, through its budget instructions, now requires executive agencies to justify funding for any new program by identifying evidence supporting the program’s effectiveness. Mississippi policymakers expect to use this information to bolster the state’s reinvigorated performance-based budget system.

These are just a few of many examples of states using evidence to inform budget and policy choices, while strengthening accountability to taxpayers who expect the programs they pay for to produce a measureable return on investment.

The members of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission should consider how these lessons, learned at the state level, can be applied at the federal level as well. When policymakers share best practices and aim for measureable results, taxpayers across the country benefit.

Schroeder directs the Pew Charitable Trusts’ fiscal federalism initiatives.

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