State Governments are Working to Improve lives by Leading with Evidence

By Nichole Dunn, RFA and Julia Chabrier, J-PAL North America

State governments work on the frontlines of social policy, tackling issues ranging from poverty and homelessness to education and health care. Given the limits on their time and budgets, state governments must make tough decisions about where to spend their scarce resources to best serve their residents. Often, they make these choices without the benefit of knowing which approaches have been tried and proven to be effective, either in their jurisdiction or elsewhere.

However, a growing number of state and local government leaders are working to build rigorous evaluations into their policies and programs. By championing the development of reliable evidence, these leaders are generating new and applicable lessons about which programs work, which work best, and why. And these evidence-based lessons can, in turn, guide state leaders in investing in proven approaches that can improve the lives of the people they serve.

At Results for America and J-PAL North America, we are working to support more state and local governments in adopting this evidence-based approach. Results for America recently released the 2018 Invest in What Works State Standard of Excellence — a national standard to guide states in using data, evidence, and evaluation to drive budget, policy, and management decisions. The State Standard of Excellence showcases 88 leading and promising data-driven and evidence-based practices, policies, programs, and systems in effect as of April 2018 in 30 states across the country. The State Standard of Excellence highlights states that have shown leadership in designating senior staff for evaluation leadership positions, establishing evaluation policies such as an evaluation plan or research agenda.

Five states are recognized as leading the way with their data-driven and evidence-based examples: Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, and Tennessee. Related to evaluation leadership, the 2018 State Standard of Excellence highlights Colorado’s leading practice where the lieutenant governor serves as the state’s chief operating officer and is responsible for working with agencies on the state’s performance management, process improvement, accountability, and transparency. In compliance with Colorado’s State Measurement for Accountable, Responsive and Transparent Government (SMART) Act, the lieutenant governor oversees the Governor’s Dashboard with the goal of using metrics and evaluation to improve services for residents. To that end, the lieutenant governor’s office spearheaded the launch of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab, supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which is helping departments evaluate their programs. This type of example serves as a roadmap for other states as they look to accelerate their use of evidence to inform policy and make budget decisions.

The State Standard of Excellence highlights the work of state governments to develop internal systems and infrastructure for measuring program impact, but many state and local governments don’t have the in-house expertise or resources needed to design and carry out rigorous evaluations. In 2015, J-PAL North America launched the J-PAL State and Local Innovation Initiative to support government leaders in identifying and pursuing opportunities to rigorously evaluate the impact of their programs and policies using randomized evaluations. Also known as randomized controlled trials or RCTs, randomized evaluations can be an especially effective way of learning whether a policy or program is achieving its desired impact.

Through the State and Local Innovation Initiative, selected partners are connected with experienced academic researchers who can partner with them to design and carry out evaluations. The Initiative also provides governments with flexible funding and technical support to help get evaluations off the ground. Reflecting the growing interest in evidence among government leaders, J-PAL North America has received more than 75 letters of interest to date from state and local governments across the country. Just this month, J-PAL North America announced new partnerships with state government leaders in New Mexico and California — both of which were highlighted in the 2018 State Standard of Excellence — to generate important evidence for their jurisdictions.

In New Mexico, J-PAL North America will support the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee in evaluating programs seeking to better prepare high school students for college. New Mexico ranks among the highest in the nation for higher education spending, but among the lowest in educational attainment: only 42 percent of college students graduate within six years. J-PAL North America will work with New Mexico to test whether early college high schools, which aim to increase college preparation and degree attainment, can help their students achieve improved long-term educational and employment outcomes. Results from this evaluation will help guide the state in future budget and policy decision-making.

J-PAL North America is also partnering with the California Franchise Tax Board to evaluate strategies to encourage households to file for the California Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC). Similar to the Federal EITC, the CalEITC is a refundable income tax credit that gives cash back to low-income, working families. Despite the important assistance that the EITC offers, it is estimated that roughly a quarter of eligible families do not claim the credit. Families can face barriers in learning about and applying for benefits, but research indicates that reminders and simplified materials may increase EITC participation. J-PAL North America and researchers from the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley will work with California over the next year to test strategies to increase EITC take-up and get needed cash back into the hands of eligible, low-income families.

Building the capacity and structures for evidence use in state government doesn’t happen overnight. But state government leaders across the country are exemplifying that it is possible to build high-quality evidence about what works. Together, we at Results for America and J-PAL North America, along with other partners in the field, are helping state governments apply these best practices in evaluation to their work. By taking steps to apply this evidence-based approach in their jurisdictions, state governments can more effectively use their resources and ultimately improve outcomes for their residents.

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We want examples of how your state is making progress on using data to achieve better results. Please share by tweeting at us @Results4America and @JPAL_NA or contacting us directly: Nichole Dunn and Julia Chabrier.

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Results for America

Working with decision-makers at all levels of government to harness the power of evidence and data to solve the world’s greatest challenges.