Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Where Does Evidence-informed Governance Go From Here?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Gary VanLandingham
February 3, 2023

There has been great interest in the field of evidence-informed governance—also widely known as evidence-based policymaking—over the past fifteen years. This field is based on the concept that we can achieve substantial improvements in policy outcomes by using the evidence of ‘what works’ (and what doesn’t) to guide policymaking and budgeting.

Though some have challenged its utility over time, it has been widely embraced by agencies in cities, counties and states; philanthropic organizations and the world of academia. As we come out of the COVID-19 Pandemic era and hopefully return to more normal times, it is useful to reflect on what we have learned about this field and the work that lies before us to achieve its aims.

Significant progress has been achieved. At the federal level, the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which became law in January 2019, mandates agencies to submit annual plans to facilitate use of evidence in policymaking. The Act also requires the agencies to publish data in machine-readable format to facilitate research studies. Beginning during the Obama Administration, many federal grant-making programs have required recipients to implement programs that have been shown through rigorous examinations to be effective in other jurisdictions.

State and local governments have similarly worked to strengthen evidence use in their policymaking and management. As reported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, at least 27 states have taken such steps as systematically reviewing their current programs to assess whether research indicates they are likely to be successful, targeting funding to interventions that are supported by ‘what works’ evidence, and strengthening monitoring systems to better enable managers and policymakers to determine if desired results are being attained.

These efforts have been supported by major philanthropic initiatives such as Results First, Results For America, What Works Cities and Project Evident. Collectively, these initiatives have helped many states, local governments and nonprofit organizations to use evidence and data to address wicked governance problems. Results for America, for example reports that participating governments have used the approach to shift over $22 billion to evidence-based programs and policies. This activity has attracted a good deal of academic study, generating many conference sessions, journal articles and books. Several public administration and public policy schools have created new courses and career tracks to train students in the field. 

However, experience has also shown that developing effective and lasting evidence-informed governance systems is extremely challenging. It is hard to implement evidence-informed governance approaches in a single policy area, let alone government-wide. Agencies must inventory their current programs, assess the level of information that is available about each intervention’s effectiveness, shift resources away from ineffective programs and to programs that evidence indicates are better investments and ensure that the programs are implemented with requisite fidelity to treatment designs.  

Often, performance measurement systems must be revised and/or new data collection systems must be developed. Agency and political champions must be found to lead and sustain the efforts over time.

For this to happen, staff involved in the process must be trained and supported. But most agencies (let alone central governmental units) lack a comprehensive list of the programs they operate, and in these days of hollow government many organizations lack staff with the time or skills to carry out the required analytical tasks. Shifting funding away from ineffective programs often creates political battles. Further, these efforts take time—several years, in many cases. 

Additionally, while the approach makes much logical sense—why wouldn’t we get rid of ineffective programs and fund those that have been shown to be effective—there is limited evidence that efforts generate the anticipated transformational improvements in outcomes.

In fact, there is a recognized replication crisis in which interventions that have been shown to be effective in one jurisdiction often fail to achieve similar results when implemented in others. As Elizabeth Linos,  Emma Bloomberg Associate Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard’s Kennedy School wrote, “If we want evidence-based policymaking to meet its promise, we have to move beyond one-off demonstration projects to transformational use of evidence at scale.”

That said, some governments have achieved significant benefits. For example, New Mexico reduced prison recidivism by over 10 percent by shifting funding to more effective treatment programs for inmates, and it significantly increased high school graduation rates by investing in high quality early education preschool programs. The Legislature has given agencies more budget flexibility in exchange for high quality performance reporting, and this system has been in effect for 20 years. 

Rather than despairing, we should build on what the field has learned and take heart from the success stories that have been found. A key step forward would be for university public administration schools to take the lead in providing training and support services to governments that undertake evidence-informed governance initiatives. Doing so would harness faculty expertise, create engaged learning opportunities for students, create a revenue stream for the units and be consistent to Dwight Waldo’s vision that public administration scholars should engage with governance rather than staying in our ivory towers.    

Author: Gary VanLandingham is Director of the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at the Florida State University.  Previously, he was founding Director of the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, which worked with states and local governments to use rigorous evidence and economic analysis to inform budget and policy choices. He was the 2016 recipient of the Harry Hatry Distinguished Performance Management Practice Award from the ASPA Center for Accountability and Performance and has served as Staff Chair of the National Conference of State Legislatures, President of the Southeast Evaluation Association, Chair of the National Legislative Program Evaluation Society, and as an advisory board member with the Government Accounting Standards Advisory Council and the Trust for Representative Democracy. This article was written under the auspices of Barrett and Greene, Inc.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

One Response to Where Does Evidence-informed Governance Go From Here?

  1. Barbara R. Johnson Reply

    February 3, 2023 at 3:12 pm

    Kudos on this! First Mandatory Course: Determining what IS and what is NOT reliable evidence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *