How the Federal Government Can Use More Evidence to Improve Outcomes

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Several successful programs demonstrate that prioritizing evidence can positively impact policy effects.

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Only 8 percent of Americans believe that information about what policies and programs work primarily drives policymakers’ decisions. Yet the federal government is increasingly using the power of rigorous evaluation to get better results for taxpayer dollars.

Evidence about what works currently informs only a small portion of the federal budget. But despite this limited use of evidence in federal policymaking, there are numerous examples of success that provide a roadmap for how the use of rigorous evidence can be scaled.

In the last five years, Congress has passed landmark bipartisan legislation that is helping identify and invest in what works in several important policy areas. For example, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) focuses on K-12 education; the Family First Prevention Services Act concerns foster care; the Juvenile Justice Reform Act targets juvenile justice; the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act takes on opioid prevention, treatment, and care; and the Foundations of Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, or Evidence Act, addresses federal agency operations. The Evidence Act, in particular, includes important provisions that require federal agencies to appoint evaluation officers, develop evaluation plans, and strengthen their data infrastructure.

The leading federal social services agencies have already demonstrated the power of using evidence of effectiveness in budget, policy, and management decisions. In the past several years, these agencies have made particular strides in building and using evidence within their grant programs, generating some promising early results. For example, the Corporation for National and Community Service currently sets aside 16 points out of 100 to AmeriCorps grant applicants based on evidence of their proposed program’s effectiveness. Since AmeriCorps began prioritizing evidence, the percentage of funds allocated to grant applicants with a strong evidence base rose from 20 percent in the 2016 fiscal year to 27 percent in the 2019 fiscal year.

These kinds of federal policy changes to increase the use of rigorous evidence translate into improved results on the ground. For example, the Minnesota Reading Corps, which has been rigorously evaluated through multiple studies, received 57 percent more AmeriCorps funds as a result of the Corporation for National and Community Service prioritizing evidence. With these funds, 6,000 more students were able to receive an intervention that has been found to improve reading skills. In fact, kindergarten students who participated in the Minnesota Reading Corps program “produced more than twice as many correct letter sounds by the end of the first semester” than did students who did not participate.

ESSA, passed in 2015, provides another example of how federal policy can drive better use of evidence to improve results. The law requires state education agencies to invest 7 percent of their federal funds allocated for improving basic educational programs—totaling approximately $1.1 billion each year nationally—in evidence-based interventions. Building on this requirement, the Nevada Department of Education is also requiring its school districts and schools to invest all state and federal education funds from 9 additional programs in evidence-based interventions, for a total of nearly $193 million each year.

The state has already seen improved results in the form of early increases in test scores, with reading and math proficiency on the rise this year among nearly all students from third to eighth grades. Some schools, particularly those in rural districts, saw double-digit gains. For example, federal and state evidence requirements helped double the percentage of third graders reading proficiently at Grass Valley Elementary School in Winnemucca County, Nevada from 24 percent during the 2017–2018 school year to 47.6 percent during the 2018–2019 school year.

In sum, although only a small portion of federal spending is subject to rigorous evaluation, there are plenty of examples of policymakers using evidence-based strategies to scale the success of proven interventions.

Yet there is more to be done. Congress can build on its progress by making legislation even more evidence-based. As demonstrated by AmeriCorps and the Nevada Department of Education, respectively, these strategies include providing preference points to grant applicants based on proven effectiveness and requiring that federal funds grants be invested in rigorously evaluated interventions.

Federal policymakers also have many other opportunities to harness the power of evidence, data, and evaluation at a greater scale. For example, setting aside 1 percent of funds from federal programs for rigorous evaluations would build more evidence about what works.

To ensure this evidence about what works is then used to get better results, the federal government could create a “What Works Institute” to train federal employees on how to use rigorous evidence and data for program improvement. Such steps to build evidence capacity could also include using flexible personnel structures to hire more scientists, technologists, and bilingual researchers into all federal agencies, especially social service agencies where research and innovation can improve results.

Additional evaluation-related capacity could also be focused on addressing the challenge of our time: economic mobility. New national economic mobility goals could drive a government-wide learning agenda. And a new “National Economic Mobility Innovation Fund”— modeled on the successful Social Innovation Fund previously operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service— could use a “pilot, test, scale” model to determine which interventions and strategies work most effectively and scale them up to meet these national goals.

More widely implementing these approaches for building and using evidence would make sure that the federal government is getting the best results for its funds. The alternative, after all, is policy based merely on hunches, inertia, and unproven notions, which will inevitably lead to worse outcomes for residents and wasted tax dollars.

Ultimately, government is about improving the lives of people, and making governmental decisions based on evidence is about improving the workings of government. Better use of evidence means better lives for Americans.

Jed Herrmann

Jed Herrmann is Vice President for State and Federal Policy Implementation at Results for America.

This essay is part of a 13-part series, entitled Using Rigorous Policy Pilots to Improve Governance.