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Evidence-Based Government Is Alive and Well

Despite some early missteps, the public management practice is here to stay. More cities are working on collaborative efforts with one another, national organizations and researchers to shape their future policies.

Austin skyline. The city's “Reimagining Public Safety” project used evidence-based policymaking to inform the city's budget decisions and to shape public safety policies starting in 2020.
(Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock)
In Brief:
  • Collaborative efforts between elected officials, professional organizations and researchers provide opportunities for advances in evidence-based policymaking.

  • Notable programs in public safety, education and community management showcase the ways data can shape policy and community management.

  • The future of government will show an increase in data-driven policymaking utilizing experts and increased, more accurate data collection.

  • “A desire to discipline the whimsical rule of despots.” That’s what Gary Banks, a former chairman of Australia’s Productivity Commission, attributed the birth of evidence-based policy to back in the 14th century in a speech from 2009. Evidence-based policymaking isn’t a new style of government, but it’s one with well-known roadblocks that elected officials have been working around in order to implement it more widely.

    Evidence-based policymaking relies on evidence — facts, data, expert analysis — to shape aspects of long- and short-term policy decisions. It's not just about collecting data, but also applying it and experts' analysis to shape future policy. Whether it's using school enrollment numbers to justify building a new park in a neighborhood or scientists collaborating on analysis of wastewater to try to "catch" illness spread in a community before it becomes unmanageable, evidence-based policy uses facts to help elected and appointed officials decide what funds and other resources to allocate in their communities.

    Problems with evidence-based governing have been around for years. They range from a lack of communication between the people designing the policy and its related programs and the people implementing them, to the way that local government struggles to recruit and maintain employees. Resource allocation also shapes the decisions some cities make when it comes to seeking out and using data. This can be seen in the way larger cities, with access to proportionately larger budgets, research from state universities within city limits and a larger workforce, have had more success with evidence-based policymaking.

    “The largest cities have more personnel, more expertise, more capacity, whether that’s for collecting administrative data and monitoring it, whether that's doing open data portals, or dashboards, or whether that's doing things like policy analysis or program evaluation,” says Karen Mossberger, the Frank and June Sackton Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. “It takes expert personnel, it takes people within government with the skills and the capacity, it takes time.”

    Roadblocks aside, state and local governments are finding innovative ways to collaborate with one another on data-focused projects and policy, seeking ways to make up for the problems that impacted early efforts at evidence-based governance. More state and local governments now recruit data experts at every level to collect, analyze and explain the data generated by residents, aided by advances in technology and increased access to researchers.

    “Yes, I think it's taking off. I see local government more and more widely using data for decision-making, using data for making policies, using data for analyzing and designing where to locate a police or fire station based on fire data, police data,” says Joe Zhao, senior performance advisor with the city of Mesa, Ariz., who leads the Mesa Nudge Team. “I mean, that's kind of how the data is utilized in the decision-making process.”

    One of the ways that smaller cities and counties can bridge the data-policy gap with larger jurisdictions that have greater resources is by turning to professional associations like the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) or the National League of Cities (NLC) to connect with other elected officials and experts in public policy. Networking and collaborative learning through these and other professional organizations, such as Arizona’s Valley Benchmark Communities, and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities certification, can help elected officials collaborate on projects and find resources that allow them to more effectively participate in evidence-based policymaking.

    Some notable evidence-based projects that bring together collaboration, data resources and policy building include Boston’s “Equitable Literacy” program, Austin’s Reimagining Public Safety and Mesa, Ariz.’s “nudge community of practice.” All three programs utilize evidence and experts to put together comprehensive policies that can bring change in local communities.

    The Equitable Literacy program uses expert analysis to shape lessons and improve curriculums to advance student literacy levels. Austin’s Reimagining Public Safety project created a multidisciplinary team that collected public safety sentiment and data points from residents to inform the city's budget decisions and to shape public safety policies starting in 2020.

    While the team no longer has formal meetings, the program initiatives developed because of their work analyzing data from the community and implementing changes are still in effect. This includes a reimagined Austin Police Department training academy, a mental health diversion program to incorporate mental health responses into 911 response and ongoing solutions for Austin residents experiencing homelessness or fleeing family violence.

    Mesa’s “nudge community of practice,” has helped Joe Zhao and his team use trial, error and large volumes of data to improve internal operations and city services in response to resident comments, backed by data showing what they need from their communities.

    More local officials are using experts and data when building out their policies and procedures, increasing the number of cities and counties that rely on evidence-based governance.

    “Data will be used more and more by government to analyze, to make policy decisions and to make decisions on where to allocate funding and where to place different projects,” says Zhao.

    Cities collect immense amounts of data – from which bus routes require schedule changes to the number of people that utilize library services at a specific branch – and that data can’t just sit there collecting digital dust. Thanks to an increase of data, better tools and officials’ understanding of its role in shaping our lives, the future for evidence-based policymaking looks bright.
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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