Evidence-Based Policymaking is an Idea Whose Time Has Come (America Forward)

By Nicole Truhe

At America Forward, we believe that innovation and evidence are needed to more effectively address our country’s most pressing social problems. There are many challenges that we face as a nation that seem intractable yet imperative that we find a way to address to ensure the best possible life for children, youth and adults in communities across this country. Whether it is a growing achievement gap in schools, declining childhood health indicators, or high unemployment rates amongst certain populations, effective solutions are needed and a stronger social sector is critical to changing these trajectories.

By one measure, the Federal government allocates over $1.5 trillion for social services annually, but only about one percent of that funding is allocated in a way that its impact on those being served is known.[1] This is because government decision-making about policies enacted and funding allocated is too often focused on inputs and outputs rather than on results. It is constrained by the fact that resources are often siloed and locked into specific providers or programs. And, it is impeded by the limited availability of, and access to, data.

Making government more effective is a bipartisan idea that both Republican and Democratic led Administrations and Congresses have embraced in various forms through the years. Most recently, this bipartisan approach to policy and funding decision-making has resulted in the authorization of the Social Innovation Fund, funding for the Workforce Innovation Fund and Investing in Innovation Fund, the emphasis on data and results in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the creation of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. These examples showcase the possibility of support from both sides of the aisle for making decisions about policies and funding levels that are based on data, outcomes, and that have the greatest ability to meaningfully improve the lives of all Americans.

Recent discussions in Washington around the release of the Administration’s ‘skinny budget’, which provided some insights into the executive branch’s thinking about what the federal government should be paying for and at what level, insinuated evidence and outcomes as core elements of how those decisions were reached. As was pointed out in a Politico article written in the wake of that discussion as well as a piece from Results for America, the majority of federal programs have never been evaluated, funding has not been consistently targeted or allocated to practices supported by evidence, and only recently has a concerted effort been undertaken to try and change these realities.

If our federally elected officials are genuine about using data and outcomes in their decision-making and creating an evidence-based policymaking environment that drives the work underway at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they must embrace the idea that it will take time to make this shift. This change will be hard and will require difficult decisions, which will include cutting some programs, eliminating others, redirecting funds from one intervention to another, and yes, even increasing funding for certain programs or activities. But it is not a process that will happen quickly and it is one that requires a surgical approach to ensure that the right decisions are made because beyond every dollar spent, cut, or saved is an individual American who will be impacted.

At America Forward, we champion innovative, effective, and efficient solutions that help to build a stronger social sector to tackle our country’s most pressing social problems. We do this through a network of more than 70 social innovation organizations who are driving progress in areas such as education, workforce development, early learning, public health, pay for success, and national service in more than 14,500 communities nationwide, touching the lives of 8 million Americans each year. Our work is grounded in the real world, community-based experiences of these organizations and those they serve. This grounding serves us extremely well in not only identifying and championing policy solutions that will have meaningful effect but also in tying those policy ideas to real people for whom these solutions have touched and produced real impact. Our advocacy work is based on a belief that in times of greater demand for human and social services and tighter budgets, we must work together to direct government resources to programs that work and that measurably improve people’s lives.

That is why we believe that to move towards a policymaking environment that incentivizes innovation, focuses on outcomes, and rewards results, government must embrace the idea that it is a movement with many stages that needs to be focused on and resourced continuously. Policies must support the invention (R&D) of innovative, effective approaches. Resources must be allocated to test or evaluate these inventions. Implementation activities need to be supported and those activities must include the flexibility to use government funding to focus on outcomes. Resources to invest in successful inventions and organizations at scale must also be prioritized. And finally, this movement needs to include an openness to continuously improve as factors impact the need for new inventions or additional testing of current approaches. This necessitates the resourcing of continuous quality improvement evaluations and supporting data development and organizational infrastructure.

This rethinking requires policymakers to consider both the elements of government and provider ecosystems that need to be supported and how funding should be authorized for use. Specific administrative actions as well as legislative measures should include:

· Hiring individuals who have knowledge in data collection and analysis, program evaluation, and continuous quality improvement;

· Investing in updated data systems to support data analysis and the sharing of data to decrease the cost of and increase the ability to conduct evaluations;

· Allowing access to and greater use of existing (administrative) datasets;

· Resourcing evaluations as a core element of the receipt of discretionary, mandatory, and even entitlement funding;

· Allocating funding based on tiered-evidence frameworks that target resources to programs that have greater evidence of effectiveness;

· Resourcing innovation or R&D funds across government to develop and scale effective interventions;

· Authorizing the use of new contracting (i.e. Pay for Success or Pay for Performance) and compliance approaches that emphasize outcomes over inputs and outputs; and,

· Supporting the work of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

Over the coming weeks, Washington will be debating funding limits for federal programs for both the current and upcoming federal fiscal years. Many factors will be weighed when determining these levels for both the defense and non-defense sectors and across program areas such as education, health, and housing. If policymakers are serious about being more outcomes-based in how they make funding decisions, they need to be aware of the evidence available regarding federally-supported interventions, they must be informed about federal programs that use evidence as a key component of their work, and they need to consider supporting measures that will create a social sector capable of driving impact and developing the evidence of what works.

To help in this effort, America Forward is launching a blog series entitled Evidence in Action. America Forward Coalition members and network partners will elevate examples of where data and evidence are being used, highlight programs for which outcomes are collected and where impact has been evaluated, and illustrate policy ideas that are indicative of evidence-based policymaking.

Behind every data point and every dollar is an individual and a community impacted by choices made and not made about how to use that data and spend that dollar. Through this series and our ongoing advocacy work, we hope to elevate policies and programs that best help communities find and test new and scale up current ways of tackling their most seemingly intractable problems and use and build evidence to measurably improve people’s lives. Join us in this discussion and tell us how you see #EvidenceinAction in your communities every day.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/07/can-government-play-moneyball/309389/

Nicole Truhe is America Forward’s Government Affairs Director.