Evidence-Based Policymaking: The Ultimate Test Of What Works

evidence_1.pngDoes it work? Is it worth it?

These two short sentences are the public’s two most salient questions when they hear about a new program, policy or initiative. They represent a common thread: citizens pay for all of these with their tax dollars.

These questions are not unfair. All of us, citizens and legislators alike, can compare notes about programs that began with great fanfare but didn’t work out as planned. Indeed, sometimes the results are a dreadful failure, in terms of stated goals, missed opportunities and lost revenue. Enough of these types of failure, and we add substance to some people’s idea that governments don’t behave with fiscal foresight or critical judgment before embarking on a new endeavor. Yet other times, a new program works terrifically, and we say, “Why don’t we do this more often?”

All this then begs the central question: Is there an approach on the policymaking side that is fair, equitable, devoid of party politics and, most importantly, provides a realistic, tested and rational approach to policymaking?

There is: It is evidence-based policymaking.

What is evidence-based policymaking?

Evidence-based policymaking has two goals: to use what we already know from program evaluation to make policy decisions and to build more knowledge to inform future decisions better.

This approach prioritizes rigorous research findings, data, analytics, and evaluation of new innovations above anecdotes, ideology, marketing, and inertia around the status quo. Evidence-based policy making also puts policy, not party, first; prioritizes information building; improves effectiveness and efficiencies; and lastly, provides guidelines for moving forward.  Let’s discuss why this matters in policymaking.

Policy outcomes, not party, are the priority

In an era of intense partisanship and constrained public resources, evidence-based policymaking can help bridge the partisan political divide and support research-based debate about what outcomes we want to achieve, for whom and at what cost. It encourages transparency and accountability by clearly stating the goals of policies and programs and then independently evaluating their results to see if those goals were achieved. By centering on outcomes, an evidence-based framework focuses policymaking on effectiveness of social interventions and efficiency in use of resources, an approach that greatly increases the chances of bipartisan agreement. 

Information sharing = better policy

Evidence-based policymaking also encourages a virtuous cycle of knowledge building. By evaluating policies and programs and using program data, we can learn how well programs are working. We can then use that information to improve programs or to terminate consistently ineffective programs and find better approaches. From there, the cycle of learning and improving continues. 

Improving effectiveness

Evidence-based policy is a critical resource as we strive to meet our nation’s most important challenges, while ensuring that we use public funds as effectively and efficiently as possible. It is a tool to help government learn what works. Of course, evidence and research will not be the only factor in policy decisions. Rather, the goal is to give evidence of program effectiveness a seat at the table when making decisions. The principles presented here are basic building blocks in that process. They are applicable at every level of government and at various points in the policymaking process, including the testing of new approaches, improvement of existing programs, identification of ineffective programs, and scaling of programs with strong evidence. Incorporating the principles of evidence-based policymaking into decision-making on a regular basis will improve the effectiveness of government programs and help solve the nation’s social problems.

Guidelines for moving forward

An evidenced-based policy decision also adds a tacit cover of cooperation when investigating, discussing or formulating policy. This doesn’t eliminate disagreement — which can be a healthy ingredient — but it sets the rules for how to proceed and what criteria we use that renders the ultimate judgement.

It might seem simplistic, but we see this approach every day in our sports activities. Whatever the organized sport, there is a criterion — arrived at by decades if not a century of rule-making — of how we play the game, the standards that we use and how we arrive at a successful conclusion. We might dislike some of the rules, we might consider others irrelevant, but in the end, there is an unanimity about the outcome (even if some parties grumble). In evidence-based policy, this analogy would suggest that we have a criterion for moving forward. And if we do proceed, it provides the mechanism and structure for rendering judgment of its effectiveness.

Evidenced-based policymaking is not a game. It is serious business, but it is an approach that we should embrace.

For these reasons, I have introduced a proposal that would appropriate $200,000 for New Jersey’s Department of Health (in partnership with the Pew MacArthur Results First Initiative) to implement an evidence-based evaluation of the New Jersey Hospital Care Assistance Program (Charity Care) with respect to greater program efficiency and promoting access to appropriate hospital care for New Jersey residents without health insurance. It is a worthy effort and the recipients deserve a helping hand. Will the program work? Is it worth the effort? Evidence-based policymaking will added clarity to the answers that we need.

That’s my take, what’s yours?


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  • debra roberts
    commented 2018-08-27 16:01:27 -0400
    Troy, Troy, Troy…
    Don’t think that evidenced based=evidence proven.
    Who did the evidenced based???? Not backed by pure scientific research.
    Research that meets standards.
    Anyone can show evidence…but look at hard core research.
    Evidence-proven. Not evidence-based.