The Power of Budgeting for What Works

Minnesota has scored early successes in its initiative to use evidence rather than anecdotes to make policy.
April 6, 2017
By Tina Smith  |  Contributor
Lieutenant governor of Minnesota

Like all Americans, Minnesotans expect government to be efficient, effective and accountable. Gov. Mark Dayton and I certainly agree. Like many public officials, we have become increasingly convinced that a key ingredient is using evidence to inform budgeting and policy decisions.

Two years ago we jumped at the chance to partner with the Results First Initiative, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. We're already seeing success. A recent Pew-MacArthur report recognized Minnesota as one of the top five states for evidence-based policymaking (along with Connecticut, Oregon, Washington and Utah). Here's how we did it:

First, we did our homework. You can't do evidence-based budgeting without the evidence. It's no different from a business forecasting future demand for its products, a college student weighing job prospects before choosing a major, or a family researching property values before buying a home.

That's the basis of our own Results First Initiative, a product of bipartisan legislation enacted in 2015. Since then, our administration has been working with Pew and MacArthur to identify public services that work and estimate cost-benefit ratios for these services. Our research so far has focused on adult mental health services and the prison system. We are expanding our efforts to additional areas of the state budget, including how we deliver treatment for substance abuse, mental health programs for children, preventive health care and juvenile-justice programs.

Here's one way that Results First analysis is working for Minnesota's mental health care system: About 226,000 adults in Minnesota have a serious mental illness. Through the Results First Initiative, we identified high-impact strategies to increase employment and decrease hospitalizations for them. One strategy is to expand access to services for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. Our Results First analysis found that such an approach drives a nearly 4-to-1 return on investment -- resulting in better quality of life for Minnesotans with mental illness and savings for hardworking taxpayers.

This spring our administration is working with the legislature to create a state budget for the next two years. It's an exciting opportunity to implement what we've learned through our Results First Initiative. By relying on evidence instead of anecdotes to make budget decisions, we are well positioned to invest in high-impact strategies for delivering a range of public services for Minnesotans while reducing government waste.

Make no mistake: Evidence-based budgeting shouldn't be a one-time experiment. Its consistent use can help policymakers improve outcomes over the long term and across a wide range of public services. We are proud of the progress we've made in Minnesota, but we know we can learn from best practices elsewhere. Together, we can continue to make state government more efficient, effective and accountable to the people it serves.