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A Real Opportunity to Expand Smart Budgeting

An initiative to help policymakers use evidence to inform spending is coming to a close after more than a decade, but it should be just the beginning of state governments’ efforts to bring analytical tools to bear to produce better outcomes.

A budget discussion
In the wake of the Great Recession, state leaders faced a significant challenge: They needed to make deep spending cuts to social programs to balance their budgets. Most states, however, did not have the analytical tools and capacity to determine whether a program was cost-effective or a waste of taxpayer dollars. As a result, policymakers often made across-the-board reductions, applying the same budget cuts to programs with poor outcomes as those with good outcomes.

This lack of analytical tools inspired The Pew Charitable Trusts to partner with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in creating the Results First initiative in 2010. The initiative was designed to help state legislative- and executive-branch officials become better stewards of their constituents’ money by using evidence to inform how resources are allocated to programs. Since its creation, Results First has demonstrated the broad appeal of using evidence to inform funding decisions by partnering with a geographically and politically diverse group of 27 states.

With Results First, the emphasis has been on what the evidence said about a program’s effectiveness — not about what type of political support it had or did not have. The goal was to fund programs from both sides of the political aisle that have been proved to work. And that’s what Results First’s partners did: Since 2010, they’ve shifted more than $1 billion toward effective evidence-based programs.

Although Results First began by focusing solely on the use of data and evidence to inform budget decisions, over the years the work expanded to include helping government leaders implement a range of significant policy changes to sustain their evidence-based policymaking efforts. For instance, the governor’s budget offices in Colorado (the Office of State Planning and Budgeting), Minnesota (Minnesota Department of Management and Budget) and North Carolina (the Office of State Budget and Management) now provide opportunities for state agencies to provide evidence for their proposals in their budget requests. In New Mexico, the 2019 Evidence and Research Based Funding Requests Act codified a process for the legislative and executive branches to help agencies use evidence to inform their budget requests.

In addition to working with public leaders and staff to implement Results First’s approach to evidence-based policymaking, the initiative also developed innovative tools to help state and local leaders access evidence to inform their funding decisions. The project’s work has centered on two main tools: the Results First Clearinghouse Database, which provides information on the effectiveness of programs as rated by nine national clearinghouses, and the Cost-Benefit Model, which allows users to calculate the return on investment for a set of evidence-based programs. Each tool spans multiple social policy areas, including criminal justice, child welfare, mental health and substance use disorder.

Today, the evidence-based policymaking landscape looks significantly different than when Results First started: It’s larger and more vibrant, thanks in part to the policymakers and their staff who took the lead in implementing the ideas and practices that Results First worked to foster.

The MacArthur Foundation ended its role with Results First in 2019, and Pew will do the same at the end of March. But the success of evidence-based policymaking is now well established, and Pew is encouraging more states and localities to use data to inform budget decisions while other organizations can build on the innovative tools and rigorous analysis that Results First helped pioneer.

To that end, Results First has transitioned its Clearinghouse Database and the Cost-Benefit Model — as well as its Evidence-Based Policymaking Resource Center, which collects the project’s research and makes it widely available to help identify best practices — to Penn State University’s Evidence-to-Impact Collaborative. The project also transferred its Peer Learning Community, a network of state government leaders committed to advancing and sustaining the use of data and evidence in budget and policy decisions, to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in collaboration with the Council of State Governments and the Policy Lab at Brown University.

Results First’s departure from the field of evidence-based policymaking is not an end; rather, it’s the start of a new era for the use of evidence among government leaders. The initiative’s leading partners will continue this critical work while developing ideas and best practices for other states to follow, and their efforts will be supported by many other nonprofit and academic institutions that will continue advancing the field. Together they will build on Results First’s legacy of incorporating evidence into budget decisions to spend more wisely and produce better outcomes.

Sara Dube led The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Results First initiative and now directs Pew’s fiscal and economic policy projects.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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