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Data-Driven Decision-Making: From Rhetoric to Results

By Darci Cherry  |  August 23, 2022

Research-backed, data-informed, performance measures, outcomes, impacts, metrics, KPIs—the list of jargon goes on. Legislators and staff wanting to integrate data in their decision-making will find it easier to focus more on the principles of results-driven governing and less on the ever-changing lingo.

Legislators “have a contract with the electorate to get the best results,” and doing so means drawing from the strategies of evidence-informed policymaking, New Mexico Rep. Patricia Lundstrom (D) told a Legislative Summit session on results-driven governing.

Using the best available research and data to guide those decisions is the key to evidence-informed policymaking.

So what does that look like? For Mississippi Sen. Briggs Hopson (R), it means that the Appropriations Committee, which he chairs, “starts with the premise that we look at the data and direct funds where things work.”

Together with Marcus Morgan, director of Alabama’s Commission on the Evaluation of Services, and David Yokum, director of The Policy Lab at Brown University, the session’s panelists featured those with firsthand experience at incorporating research into policy and practice. Working with a group of legislators, legislative staff, executive branch officials and researchers, NCSL’s Center for Results-Driven Governing developed the report for decision-makers interested in using data and evidence to make budget and policy choices.

Refining the Approach

The Legislative Finance Committee in New Mexico is refining its approach for embedding data in budget decisions—a reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Over the last year, budget hearings have taken on a new look with the introduction of the LegisStat process, an adapted version of PerformanceStat, which typically occurs in executive branch agencies. In this format, legislators spend less time listening to agency presentations and more time in conversation with agency directors. They focus on priority policies and programs, asking meaningful questions about performance trends, challenges and proposed solutions.

For Lundstrom, the goal is to understand how the agency and Legislature will measure success the following year. “What does success look like for your agency?” she asks. “I’m not OK with investing the same amount of money in the same program and expecting different results.”

Access to quality data and analysts on staff are keys to supporting the budget process, panelists say. The ABCs report highlights steps states have taken to that end. For example, Mississippi’s nonpartisan Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, known as PEER, provides the Legislature with accurate information for decision-making and legislative oversight.

“Staff will analyze the data with you in crafting a budget, so you know who is meeting their goals,” Hopson says.

Lundstrom noted the value of clearly communicating the benefits of the work and “changing the culture” so that it becomes “ingrained in the process.” That echoes another principle in the ABCs report: the need to routinely and strategically communicate with stakeholders to gain support for evidence-informed approaches.

Hopson says sustaining this work doesn’t mean removing the political reality, but “performance results and data can overcome the loudest voices and anecdotal information,” leading to better investments and results.

Darci Cherry is a policy specialist with NCSL’s Center for Results-Driven Governing.

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