Evidence-based policy-making is not inherently the most exciting topic of conversation. While the practice is known to be effective by allowing for increased data driven investment in the most cost-effective programs and ultimately improving the outcomes of taxpayer funded programs, the successes do not get headline coverage the way flashy, new government programs do.
Therefore, the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative’s new report How States Engage in Evidence-Based Policymaking, which highlights the states that lead in practicing evidence based policy making, is a welcome publication to those states leading the way.
Connecticut ranks fourth highest for use of evidence-driven policy-making in the report, behind Washington State, Utah, and Minnesota, and just in front of Oregon. The report provides Connecticut reason to be optimistic, and also suggests practices that could improve policy decisions and ways in which we in the Constitution State could push our lawmakers to institute even more of a focus on this practice.
Evidence-based policy making is, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, “the systematic use of findings from program evaluations and outcome analyses (‘evidence’) to guide government policy and funding decisions.” This process is more involved than it may seem.
First, states have to define levels of evidence, which means determining a criteria to distinguish between programs that have been proven to work, versus those that have not. Another important step is to keep an “inventory” of all programs that have been tested, in order to provide policy makers a record of information that can help them choose which policies they should implement.
Given this information, determining economically how much benefit is derived from tested programs is crucial in choosing how to fund different programs. Many of these processes, such as collecting and inventorying evidence, are important because the earlier they are started, the more information is available and the more programs are tested in order to provide for better evidence-based policy-making in the future.
Lastly, in addition to collecting data and evidence on programs, it is important to make sure that decision makers (such as legislators) are given access to the information so that it can inform policy decisions.
For example, since 2005 Connecticut has implemented a budgeting technique that ensures that legislators receive information (such as regular scorecards and formal presentations) about the evidence-based effectiveness of programs. The Connecticut State Department of Corrections also leads the state with an advanced inventory that allows officials to look at programs by their evidence-based effectiveness.
However, there are other ways in which Connecticut might consider improving.
For instance, other departments in addition to the Department of Corrections could begin using the advanced inventory practices. Additionally, in Oregon, the state that leads the way in evidence-based policy-making, certain human services departments are required by law to direct at least 75 percent of their funds towards evidence-based programs. While such a requirement does have drawbacks– for instance, it might limit the amount of untested, though potentially innovative programs that can be tested in a given fiscal year– such an approach might make sense to consider or implement to some degree going forward. More regular scorecards and presentations to public officials and legislators could also boost civic health and equity, given that over one third of adults in Connecticut feel they have little to no influence on government decisions.
Ultimately, we have much to be proud of in Connecticut. Implementing systems for policy making that make subtle change and gather evidence on effective programs is something that is underappreciated. However, as the Pew report reminds us, it is an important and proven technique that can help cement Connecticut’s status as a leader in best practices for states.
Michael Zanger-Tishler is a Dwight Hall Urban Fellow at DataHaven.