The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 26, 2018

Why evidence-based policymaking should be on every new governor’s to-do list

As new governors prepare to step into office, many issues may weigh on their minds: meeting campaign promises, developing public programs, managing the local or state crisis du jour, and building a team to handle the pressing affairs of the state. Among these competing priorities, evidence-based policymaking may not be on the top of the list; however, using evidence may help new leaders meet their policy goals. 

Today, we can harness data in new ways and apply evidence to develop new policy interventions and ensure that existing interventions are working. To help governors use these advances, the Evidence-Based Policymaking Collaborative, a joint effort of the Urban Institute, Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, and Pew Charitable Trusts, has released a new guide for governors on evidence-based policymaking.

The approach is nonpartisan and applicable across all issue areas. At heart, it is about making sure we get the biggest and best outcomes for our tax dollars. As we note in the guide, evidence-based policymaking can help new leaders meet their policy goals by focusing limited public funding on programs and policies that work and fostering deeper understanding of constituents’ needs.

Based on this resource, here are five ways new governors can infuse evidence-based practices in their first-term policymaking.

1. Modify the annual budgeting process.

State governments can borrow from private-sector practices to use cost-benefit analysis in the budgeting process. They can also encourage performance-based budgeting, which uses output and outcome metrics to track efficiency and ensure that public funds are being used for impact. With 16 states already engaging in one of these two practices, there are good models from which to draw examples.

2. Leverage administrative data for performance, research, and evaluation.

States collect a wide range of administrative data through their daily operations that can be used to build evidence for program effectiveness. These data can also be leveraged to rigorously evaluate programs because they provide a way to measure outcomes without separate data collection.

It can take time to get systems, processes, staff capacity, and partnerships in place to capture insights from administrative data, but when there are data sources related to outcomes of interest, the potential payoff is significant. State agencies like the Massachusetts Department of Public Health are using existing administrative data and linking together datasets from several state agencies to answer critical questions about the opioid epidemic.

3. Develop a research or learning agenda.

A learning agenda is a set of questions addressing critical knowledge gaps about a public policy area or program. The agenda guides an agency’s short- and long-term research evaluation projects. In Tennessee, the State Department of Education and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education developed a research agenda together, drawing on the analytical strength of researchers at Peabody and the policy expertise of state staff.

4. Improve agency grantmaking.

States can also provide incentives to their grantees and local partners to use evidence-based practices. Governors and their state agencies can implement grant requirements stipulating that recipients of grant dollars use evidence-based practices.

At the federal level, agencies have used tiered-evidence grantmaking, which provides incentives for programs backed by strong evidence by offering larger shares of the grant pool to such grantees. There are other approaches states can take to tie grants to outcomes, such as pay for success financing and using evidence to direct mandatory spending.

5. Use new, low-cost approaches to measure success.

The guide introduces new, low-cost approaches to measuring success. Quick testing methods from the technology sector, such as A/B testing or rapid cycle evaluation, allow state leaders, at no additional cost, to test the uptake of certain programs by offering two versions of program announcement language, for example.

States, and the governors who lead them, are key to ensuring that cities and counties are harnessing evidence and administrative data to make better-informed policy decisions with their federal and state dollars. Providing strong leadership support for integrating evidence into state-level policymaking—at the beginning of their term and in whatever capacity—ultimately allows for more effective, impactful, and thoughtful policy decisions.

Photo by Utamaru Kido/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.