By Kristine Goodwin
As state policymakers grapple with the public health and economic fallout stemming from COVID-19, they agree on the importance of having sound and reliable information to guide the difficult policy and budget decisions that lie ahead.
Evidence and data can “help states get back on their feet faster,” Oregon Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D) told fellow members of NCSL’s evidence-informed policymaking work group at a virtual meeting last month. By understanding what works and how to use evidence to inform state policy and budget decisions, Steiner Hayward said “we can figure out which are the best policies to spend money on to get our economies going.”
The work group of state legislators, executive officials, senior legislative and executive branch staff met on May 15 for the third time since their first meeting at NCSL’s Capitol Forum last December. The world has changed dramatically since then, but the group’s charge has not.
With support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, NCSL has tapped the group to identify the core principles that support evidence-informed policymaking and advise NCSL on its new center for evidence-informed policymaking.
Defining the Principles of Evidence-Informed Policymaking
By using the best available research and data, evidence-informed policymaking can help decisionmakers target resources to programs and policies that are proven effective at achieving specific results, like lowering recidivism or re-employing jobless Americans.
Work group members identified seven broad principles that help to support and sustain evidence-informed decisions. Making the list, the group strongly agreed that collaboration between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches is a key ingredient for promoting and sustaining an evidence-informed approach.
Case in point: In 2019, Alabama lawmakers passed legislation to establish the Commission on the Evaluation of Services. Co-chaired by executive and legislative leaders, the commission evaluates how effective state services are and advises the legislature and the governor on how to allocate resources.
Work group member and Alabama Senator Arthur Orr said he was “pleased that we were able to bring together the legislative and executive branches to focus on greater effectiveness of our programs.” As a result, Orr said there will be “much stronger and united execution in the long-term that delivers a more cost-effective government in Alabama for our taxpayers.”
Based on work group input, NCSL is preparing to release the new “ABC’s of Evidence-Informed Policymaking: Principles for State Policymakers” report this summer. Geared towards legislators and legislative staff, the report offers seven strategies that can help states use research to get the best results and make the most of taxpayer-funded programs.
What’s Needed to Support Evidence-Informed Policymaking
NCSL staff asked work group members at the May meeting for guidance on how the new center can help states implement the principles of evidence-informed policymaking. They identified what its mission should be, pressing challenges it should address, and what should be its most important priorities or areas of focus.
“Rather than having to reinvent the wheel,” Orr said, being able to call the center and learn from other states’ experiences “would give us a place to start and serve as a real guide.”
For instance, we learned that legislative and executive branch “champions” have played a pivotal role in many states by raising awareness in state agencies and legislatures—and a plan for sustaining momentum and reforms over time would assure that they live on beyond any individual or small group of supporters.
To that end, ongoing evidence-based policy training and education can help—but is often lacking. Tailored trainings for legislators and legislative and executive branch staffers would help to build awareness and enhance state’s capacity to assess the quality of programs it funds.
NCSL’s new center will address these challenges by developing and sharing our own and other reliable resources and research findings, providing a forum for sharing best practices and lessons learned, and delivering training and technical assistance to help states use evidence to inform decisions and improve government effectiveness.
When thinking about the center’s mission and why it exists, Micaela Fischer, work group member and program evaluation manager for New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee, said “We’re not just doing this for the sake of evidence or because it feels good to have the numbers—but because we want to serve people better and not waste taxpayer dollars.”
Kristine Goodwin is a program director in NCSL’s Employment, Labor & Retirement Program.