Better data to explain how policies evolve

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A researcher is building a database of 4.2 million state-level government decisions so that users can see how different states respond to similar situations.

Lawmakers, researchers and journalists will soon be able to track how state government policies change as they spread from state to state.

A researcher at West Virginia University is attempting to create a policy diffusion database of “every legislative bill, executive rule and judicial decision across all 50 states.”  The goal is to allow users to easily compare and contrast the results of these passed or un-passed pieces of legislation and see how different states respond to similar situations – like the economic recession of 2008 or calls to ban smoking.

“This data will help us have a better sense of the dynamics of policy diffusion in the states,” said WVU’s William Franko, a professor in the Rockefeller School of Politics and Policy.  “Thinking about the way policy ideas spread broadly, those ideas don’t just come from the legislative branch. Policy ideas occur in all branches of state government. The database will allow us to look at all of these decisions in a more consistent way.”

Although policy change is slow in government, “that doesn’t really stop ideas from flowing from one state to another,” Franko said. “When you just look at the adoption of policies, you are potentially missing the way these ideas are shared within and across states.”

The database “will be useful for policymakers who don’t necessarily have the connections or networks that people in other states do, especially the less professionalized state legislatures,” Franko said. Users without those resources could use this database to see how ideas have evolved and spread throughout the country.

Researchers have long sought to understand policy diffusion and have often turned to data to help. In 1984, one researcher created a dataset, the Diffusion of Public Policy Innovation Among the American States, that tracked 85 innovative programs across 48 states during the 19th and 20th centuries.  A more recent paper on policy diffusion called for improvements to policy diffusion data to  “develop a research design tailored to the specific question, use better data, carry out placebo tests whenever possible, and pay more attention to causal inference.”

The WVU database would include about 4.2 million decisions made in state government, some dating back to 1950.  The project will take up to three years to assemble, Franko said.

The database will be available online and as part of an open source software package for more advanced analysis, which will include methods to easily determine where policies began and how they spread throughout other states.

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