Evidence-based practices: How does your state stack up?

There’s been an explosion of public sector enthusiasm over evidence-based practices in the last five years. But actually understanding the nitty-gritty elements of how to make it work is far rarer.


Over many years, we’ve been advisors to the Results First initiative, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and The MacArthur Foundation. This past year, we watched the care with which the staff developed a comprehensive guide to “evidence-based policy-making”. The report that resulted from the team effort  was released last week, “How States Engage in Evidence-Based Policymaking.”


This is an extremely comprehensive guide to the important steps that are necessary to getting this worthy idea going and it’s also a courageous effort to sort out which states are at the head of the pack, which are in the middle and which are trailing.


“The report shows that many states are already employing some evidence-based policymaking actions,” Sara Dube, director of the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative told us. “It also shows that more can be done – even by the leading states – to ensure budget and policy decisions are informed by evidence and data.”


One important caveat. The report looks at the processes and laws in place. It doesn’t explore the actual implementation. But it’s a great start at scoping out where states are, not where they talk about being. For example, you can say you want to fund programs based on “the evidence”, but that has little meaning unless you define what different levels of evidence actually mean.


There are some startling results in the report. We were surprised to see that Michigan and Maryland were among the seven “trailing states,” as  those governments have earned lots of praise for other management systems in the past.  Other trailing states are Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire and West Virginia.


At the top of the class were Washington, Utah, Minnesota, Connecticut and Oregon. There are lots of good examples of how these and other states have made use of state-based and national/international evaluations of what works and what doesn’t. For example, one of the many programs the report describes is Utah’s development of a “statewide registry of evidence-based prevention programs” to guide contracting decisions for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. Another example from Minnesota: In criminal justice, the state and its counties are using a checklist developed by the University of Cincinnati to look at which community interventions adhere to evidence-based practices.  In Oregon, in the current biennium, $57.2 million in grants went to local public safety agencies that have shown “proven strategies to reduce recidivism and save prison costs.”


The project looked at four areas of public policy – behavioral health, child welfare, criminal justice, and juvenile justice. Interestingly some states are excellent in one of these areas, but have few systems in place in others. For example, Florida, which is one of the states in the second tier, does very well in juvenile justice, but has fewer evidence-based policymaking tools in place for child welfare.


The Results First website also has some useful interactive maps showing how states did on the various criteria that were used in the evaluation.

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