Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Data and evidence can help state policymakers make thoughtful decisions on public health, economics, equity and other issues.
Now, more than ever, governors and other state leaders are relying on data and evidence to make decisions to protect citizens during the worst public health crisis in generations. Data points like confirmed cases, test positivity rates and deaths have introduced a grim new vocabulary to governors and other leaders alongside more traditional metrics like unemployment rates, standardized test scores and sales tax receipts.
Similarly, the protests across the country have highlighted the need for governments to do more to create equitable social, economic and health outcomes for communities—especially for communities of color. Evidence and data can also be key tools to help governments improve equity by understanding communities' needs; continuously improving programs for all residents; and ensuring the delivery of quality services that improve outcomes for communities in need.
As governors continue to face difficult decisions on balancing public health and economic stability, it’ll be imperative for state governments to invest in building their capacity to use evidence and data to get better results for their residents. A group of leading states have distilled their successes to build their data and evidence capacity into a new resource, a Blueprint for Delivering Results in State Governments, to help all state governments follow suit by conducting four key actions:
Manage for Results. Governors and state leaders should establish clear strategic goals that can be systematically measured and publicly monitored. A system for managing performance to meet these strategic goals can help state leaders improve services and deliver better results for residents. For example, Maryland’s Managing for Results initiative publishes annual performance reports that track agencies’ key goals, objectives and performance measures with support from the Governor’s Office of Performance Improvement. Washington state’s Results Reviews provide a forum for the governor, state leaders and state residents to engage in a transparent and accountable review of state programs.
Leverage Data. State leaders can leverage data to measure progress and inform their knowledge about what works, for whom and why. To do this effectively, state leaders should establish a vision for how data integration can be used to unlock insights across strategic priorities. Appointing data leaders can ensure the state is making informed decisions while also adhering to privacy standards. During the pandemic, states across the country have done this by linking public health information with other critical data sets to support food access and monitor hospital capacity. For example, the Indiana Performance Management Hub supports the state’s Covid-19 response by housing data, which are publicly available on the statewide COVID-19 dashboard. The Kentucky Center for Statistics has linked state education and workforce data sets, and a research agenda focused on equity, to inform the state’s education and workforce policies.
Build and Use Evidence. States can invest in an evaluation infrastructure to turn data insights into empirical evidence about the effectiveness of programs to inform decisions. State leaders can support evaluations, build collaborative research partnerships and embrace proven practices. In California, the Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare uses an evidence scale to help providers implement effective child welfare interventions. This evaluation capacity is particularly useful in the state budgeting process as it helps state leaders improve results by funding proven interventions. The Tennessee Office of Evidence and Impact provides technical assistance to agencies as a part of its evidence-based budgeting initiative. Evidence-based budgeting is more applicable now as states are faced with Covid-19 fiscal pressures and looking for ways to preserve funding for highly effective programs.
Invest for Results. Government spending is policy in action. Incorporating evidence and data to drive spending decisions is the best way for state governments to improve results. State leaders can use a variety of strategies to fund evidence-based programs that meet the state’s strategic goals and improve equity. Nevada’s Department of Education took this approach when requiring all of its $8.5 million in federal school improvement funds to be spent on evidence-based interventions. Rhode Island has also demonstrated how shifting public resources to the most effective interventions increases their scale and impact. The state’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families relied on active contract management strategies in restructuring 116 contracts (totaling $90 million) to focus on results, reducing the number of children in group care by more than 20 percent.
By following these four strategies, state leaders can build the capacity to continuously improve results while simultaneously demonstrating how governors can effectively use data to achieve improved outcomes for their residents. Ultimately, equipping governments with the capacity to effectively use evidence and data is a vital step toward a more equitable and prosperous future for all.
Timothy Blute is the director of the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association. Jed Herrmann is the vice president for state and federal policy implementation at Results for America.