Using Data and Evidence in State Policies and Programs

An Urban Institute Briefing for State Leaders

There are more opportunities than ever before to use data, research, and evidence to help make better policy decisions. Every year, state leaders are finding ways to harness data to unlock solutions, target new policy interventions, and measure success. Innovators can use these approaches and tools to get better outcomes from their scarce public resources.

Putting Evidence-Based Policymaking into Practice

Urban Institute researchers work directly with state leaders at multiple levels to develop the knowledge and skills to put evidence-based policymaking into action.

Urban experts make several policy recommendations for state leaders:

Improve the annual budgeting process: State governments can borrow from the private sector to analyze costs and benefits in budgeting. Governors can also encourage evidence-based budgeting, which uses performance metrics to track efficiency and ensure that public funds are driving outcomes and impact. The 16 states already using these techniques can be used for inspiration.

Leverage administrative data for better performance, research, and evaluation: Through their daily operations, states collect a vast array of administrative data that can be mined for programmatic evidence. These data also can be leveraged to rigorously evaluate programs without needing a separate data-collection process.

Use new, low-cost approaches to measure success: Quick testing methods from the technology sector, such as A/B testing or rapid cycle evaluation, allow state leaders to experiment with program implementation at minimal additional cost. Rapid-cycle evaluation has been used at the US Department of Education to help educators determine which classroom technologies are effective.

Develop a research or learning agenda: State leaders can develop learning agendas that raise key research questions and help address critical knowledge gaps about a public policy area or program. Learning agendas can help leaders prioritize what they need to know to improve future program decisions and are built with the engagement of key stakeholders.

Improve agency grantmaking: States can better incentivize grantees and local partners to use evidence-based practices. Federal agencies have used tiered-evidence grantmaking to offer larger shares of the grant pool to evidence-based programs—an approach that states could replicate. States can take additional approaches to tie grants to outcomes, such as implementing pay for success financing and using evidence to direct mandatory spending.

Resources That Answer Questions

Two people look at paper in front of computer

Evidence Based Policymaking Toolkit

How can agencies shift to an evidence-based policymaking approach?
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Work Binders

Evaluation Toolkit

What are the best ways to evaluate pay for success projects?
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PFS Project Assessment Tool

What is pay for success, and when is it a good fit for states?
Read more

To connect with policy experts at Urban, email Amy Elsbree at

Urban Institute is a nonprofit research organization. Urban’s policy experts translate research findings and data findings for diverse audiences, apply insights to real-world problems to find solutions, and share their recommendations with policymakers at every level. 

Urban Institute, as an organization, does not take positions on legislation or policy issues. Urban’s experts are empowered to follow the evidence to provide policy recommendations based on their research and expertise. The recommendations expressed here should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. This resource was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation through the Urban Institute’s Low-Income Working Families initiative.