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A Growing Momentum to Invest in Programs That Work

It’s happening in red and blue states alike: Policymakers and civil servants are increasingly relying on evidence to transform how taxpayer dollars are spent.

Students attending a summer learning camp in Putnam County, Tenn.
Students attending a summer learning camp in Putnam County, Tenn., in 2022. The state’s support for evidence-based strategies included funding high-impact tutoring and summer learning programs. (Photo: Putnam County School System)
Divisive. Corrupt. Messy. These are the words Americans most frequently use to describe the current state of our politics and policymaking. It’s no wonder. The federal government has teetered on the brink of financial disaster three times in the past six months.

Polarization and disarray in Congress are feeding the decline in the public’s confidence in the ability of government to deliver, particularly among younger Americans. To reverse this, we need to rebuild trust in government. And one important way to do this is to highlight examples of where government is working.

State government is a good place to start. In red states and in blue states alike, governors, their teams and nonpartisan civil servants are transforming how states invest taxpayer dollars to deliver better results and faster progress for residents.

Take Tennessee and Minnesota. Even though they are controlled by different political parties, they have been in near lockstep over the past 10 years in using evidence and data to shift billions of dollars toward more-effective solutions.

For example, both states have made it easier for the public and policymakers to know when the state is investing in programs and services with a track record of success. Easy-to-access online databases in Tennessee and Minnesota list the evidence for currently funded programs. Both states also require state agencies to explain the outcomes they hope to achieve in new funding requests and to document whether those results have been successfully delivered before.

New research that I worked on with experts from the University of Minnesota and other institutions shows how this type of information can reshape how state governments invest: State leaders were 22 percent more likely to support a sample program proposal if it was labeled “evidence-based” and supported by proof of impact.

In taking stock of programs for its online evidence database, Tennessee officials identified $1.6 billion in state and federal funds that are annually invested in programs that use practices with a track record of success. The state reports that even more evidence-based investments will be identified in the coming year and that this effort represents just one way that Tennessee is finding and supporting strategies that work. In 2022, this included funding high-impact tutoring and summer learning programs that research has tied to learning gains for students. It’s an investment that paid off for the state’s children: A study from last spring found that students who attended summer learning programs did better in math the following fall.

In addition to investing in evidence-based programs and services, Minnesota is evaluating and building evidence for promising programs. This past May, the state allocated $316 million for two years and $136 million annually thereafter to its new Great Start Compensation Support Payment Program. The program seeks to address workforce shortages in the child-care industry by increasing compensation and benefits for early educators. The program is already delivering results for some child-care providers by helping them increase their workers’ hourly wages. While gratifying, the results are not unexpected: Evaluations of a trial grant program showed that child-care providers who received grants were more likely to increase wages for workers and stay open during the pandemic compared to those who did not receive the grants.

Tennessee and Minnesota are far from alone in using data and evidence to guide decision-making. A new report from Results for America, released in partnership with the National Governors Association, highlights 194 efforts across 46 states — led by governors and legislators of both parties as well as state agency leaders — to build and use evidence and data to improve residents’ lives. The top-ranked states, in addition to Minnesota and Tennessee, were Colorado, North Carolina and Oregon, with honorable mentions going to California, Connecticut, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Utah.

While these standouts confirm the broad spectrum of state leaders investing in strategies that work, massive opportunities remain to use data to guide state investments. Moreover, at a time of increased gridlock at the federal level, this emerging consensus around investing in what works offers leaders a bridge back to the job of governing — to demonstrate that, in many cases, government is indeed working and worthy of public trust.

Patrick Carter is vice president and state practice lead at Results for America, a national nonpartisan nonprofit that helps advance evidence-based policymaking. Previously, he worked in a variety of nonpartisan roles with the state of Minnesota. He can be reached at patrick@results4america.org.



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