By Kristine Goodwin
Evidence-based policymaking (EBP) can help state policymakers allocate resources to programs that are effective, promote innovation, and build a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
“When we incorporate evidence into policy, we actually help who we’re trying to help and we save money in the short and long terms,” Oregon Senator Dr. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D) explained in an interview for NCSL’s new EBP Q&A series. “Incorporating evidence makes government smarter, and smarter government works better for the people.”
What does it mean to incorporate evidence into the policy process—and what does it look like in the real world of state policymaking?
A pair of separate resources from NCSL and The Pew Charitable Trusts explores these questions. Drawing from interviews with policymakers in five states, they offer concrete options and lessons that can help inform others looking to advance EBP.
In Legislator’s Words: Evidence-Based Policymaking Q&A Series
NCSL interviewed Steiner Hayward, Alabama Senator Arthur Orr (R) and then-Utah Representative Eric Hutchings (R) to capture why EBP matters, what it looks like, and which steps have paved the way for success.
Their EBP approaches vary, but their reasons for using an evidence-based approach stem from similar pursuits of fiscal stewardship, investing in programs that are proven to work, and achieving better outcomes for taxpayers. Reflecting on their experiences, they shared the following takeaways.
Ask questions. The legislators extolled the virtues of simply asking questions—about the data you were just presented or about what success should look like with a given program or policy.
Steiner Hayward, a physician by training, endorses a healthy dose of skepticism. “Some of the questions I like to ask myself while reviewing data include, ‘Are there any questions that are left unanswered or that weren’t considered?’ and ‘Could this data be skewed or biased in some way that hasn’t been accounted for?’”
Asking questions can also help build a culture where evidence is an expected part of the policy process. “I plan to continue to ask everyone who asks [the legislature] to spend money to show us the evidence that proves why their program works and why we should be spending money in that way,” Steiner Hayward said.
Value independent, impartial analyses. As appropriations chair, Orr said it helps to have a trusted, independent group “that will evaluate the programs and services of our government and be a fair arbiter of what is working well for the dollars we are spending.”
To that end, he sponsored legislation in 2019 that established the Alabama Commission on the Evaluation of Services (ACES)—a bipartisan and cross-branch commission charged with advising the legislature and governor on EBP and the effectiveness of state-funded services. “Having the capability to understand the programs and their impact can give us a more tailored approach," Orr explained.
Don’t go it alone. Legislators credit relationships—within the legislature, across state government, and with external partners—as key to EBP success and longevity. Orr explained that Alabama’s efforts benefited from bringing the executive branch to the table early in the process of establishing ACES. “You need that cooperation and not confrontation with the executive branch; you need them to be on board and to buy in,” Orr said.
Partnering with national organizations, philanthropic or university research partners can build needed research capacity. Hutchings said: “No. 1: Go and find some research expertise and get the help. No. 2: Bring in stakeholders.”
Communicate clearly about EBP. How you frame an issue as complex as EBP matters, Steiner Hayward says. “It is not usually an issue of ‘I don’t care about the evidence’ as much as it is figuring out what part of the evidence is going to resonate most,” she says.
Pew Issue Brief Highlights Lessons and from Minnesota and New Mexico
Pew’s new issue brief, “How States Can Develop and Sustain Evidence-Based Policymaking,” reinforced similar themes, including the importance of clear and compelling messaging, one of four key conditions that can prime states for a culture of evidence use.
Minnesota and New Mexico, the subjects of Pew’s study, have “made concerted efforts” to tailor their messaging about evidence-promoting activities. Legislative and executive branch staff in both states also excel at presenting data in compelling formats, such as report cards or online dashboards.
Drawing from interviews with legislative and executive branch leaders and staff, the brief also credits the following three factors with building and sustaining EBP:
- Respected, non-partisan oversight entities—which the states have in Minnesota Management and Budget and New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee.
- Making evidence part of everyday business, not a one-time effort. Both states maintain a dedicated research staff and incorporate performance data into their budget process.
- Engaging a diverse group of leaders in the legislature, governor’s office, and state agencies.
Their sustained efforts to promote evidence continue to make a difference. “The idea of evidence-based decision-making has risen to the top. It’s something that people really think about now,” New Mexico Representative Patty Lundstrom (D) said. “It’s not just how many people we have running through a system, but are we really seeing change? And is it the change we’d like to see?”
Kristine Goodwin is a program director in NCSL's Employment, Labor, & Retirement Program.