The blog of the Urban Institute
January 4, 2021

How the New Administration Can Use Evidence-Based Policymaking to Improve Program Performance and Effectiveness

January 4, 2021

Now that the 2020 election cycle is over, federal government officials are turning their attention to the new administration. As agencies prepare to implement new policies and continue improving existing ones, the principles of evidence-based policymaking and program management can help ensure success.

Since the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act passed in 2018, federal agencies have been improving capacity to perform evaluations and use evidence in policymaking and implementation. These improvements include designating specific staff to oversee evaluation, data, and statistics within the agency; creating learning agendas (comprehensive sets of research questions and activities for the agency); and improving the quality of and access to public data while ensuring privacy and security. A new administration offers an opportunity to continue building on these efforts to strengthen evidence and, in turn, strengthen policies to help people.

How does improving evaluation and evidence capacity affect programs’ performance?

An Urban Institute event last year explored how learning agendas and other evaluation tools can improve, not just evaluate, program performance. Agencies can use evaluation and performance measurement to identify problems and opportunities within their programs and test the efficacy of solutions. For example, an agency in New York City that focuses on inspecting buildings for safety issues conducted an evaluation to identify major factors related to building safety. Based on this evaluation, they implemented a new building inspection schedule, which resulted in a higher rate of identifying major issues during inspections.

Because evaluation and evidence capacity can improve program performance, they are important tools for program practitioners and managers seeking to improve results. Program managers can use logic models, program assessment, performance measurement, and evaluation results to identify areas for improvement in their organization. For example, using findings from behavioral science, the US Department of Agriculture piloted a program in 2016 (PDF) to automatically enroll eligible students for free and reduced-price lunch, rather than incentivizing caretakers to enroll their children manually. This intervention can improve access to meals for low-income schoolchildren.

Federal evidence-based policymaking can trickle down to the state and local levels

As demonstrated by the New York City example, federal work around evidence capacity and evaluation is useful for state and local agencies and has a low barrier to entry; incorporating evaluation practices into program implementation does not require advanced statistical or analytical expertise. An Urban Institute guide suggests state and local program managers incorporate three basic forms of evaluation to ensure their programs improve: outcome measurement, in-depth program evaluations, and implementation evaluations. For example, the Minnesota Department of Revenue used random assignment, an evaluation technique, to test an intervention aimed at getting taxpayers to resolve unpaid liabilities. They found that the intervention—sending a letter about paying liabilities before billing the taxpayer—tripled the likelihood that the taxpayer paid their liabilities.

Evidence-based policymaking is crucial to program success, and program evaluation is one way to help strengthen decisionmaking. Program evaluation is an effective, efficient, and attainable tool for improving program performance and can be implemented at all levels of government and even within nongovernmental organizations. A new administration offers new opportunities to incorporate evidence-based policymaking at all levels of government to improve program outcomes.

(JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.