How New Mexico Has Become a Leader in Evidence-Based Policymaking

By Charles Sallee, Deputy Director, Legislative Finance Committee, New Mexico.

New Mexico stands “at the forefront of states engaging in evidence-based policymaking,” according to a Pew Charitable Trusts brief published this year,

This is something about which good government advocates in the state can be proud, but it’s not as though someone in the capital suddenly turned on a performance management switch.

In fact, New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), and the legislature in general, have been doing performance-based budgeting since the early 2000s. More recently, we’ve added new ways to use evidence, including through our participation in the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative. This overall legislating for results framework has resulted in millions of dollars being steered towards evidence-based interventions designed to achieve better outcomes for New Mexicans.

Using credible research to influence policy

One important part of that effort has been building credible evidence to guide decision making about priority policy issues facing the state. A good example emanating from the early days of New Mexico’s work in this area comes from the field of early-childhood education.

In the late 2000s, the state launched a pre-K initiative, backed by national research, showing the effectiveness of high-quality preschool. Coming out of the great recession, policymakers were debating whether to expand the program, with a focus on early literacy. That raised an important question: Were early education dollars already being spent in New Mexico producing the impact that advocates for the program had hoped?

The LFC tasked our staff—led by our director, David Abbey—to conduct a rigorous program evaluation to answer that question. Our LFC program evaluators conducted a quasi-experimental study to examine whether students who had participated in pre-k programs in the state—particularly those from low-income families—were more ready to learn by kindergarten. It also examined whether those students had higher literacy and math scores by third grade.

The answer on both counts, published in a study in 2012 (Developing Early Literacy in New Mexico), was a definitive yes. The fact that the study came from a trusted non-partisan source with a reputation for sound analysis and no “dog in the fight” on the issue, helped bolster the impact of the findings. The study helped spur major new investments to expand pre-k programs, from about $14 million in 2012 compared to over $106 million in 2021. Today, about 80 percent of four-year-olds in New Mexico have access to some form of publicly funded preschool.

Developing inventories of agency programs

A more recent core strategy was codified in the New Mexico Evidence and Research-Based Funding Act of 2019, which was an amendment to our existing performance-based budgeting and accountability approach.

It stemmed from legislators’ desire for more information about the programs that agencies were running, especially in high-priority policy areas. The Act empowers the LFC, in conjunction with the governor’s budget office, to require certain agencies to create program inventories in specific policy areas and share that information as part of their budget submissions. That includes information about what the programs cost, whether they’re backed by credible evidence, how many people they serve, and other information.

To date, five agencies have developed ten inventories. One of these, for example, focuses on juvenile justice programs in New Mexico, a policy area chosen in part because there exists robust national research about efforts that work well. That has enabled our Children, Youth and Families Department to examine that research (using national evidence clearinghouses) to determine the extent to which their programs are using evidence-based approaches.

In that way, the inventory effort is not just about providing better information for legislators. It’s also about getting agencies into the habit of looking at the evidence and requesting funding for evidence-based interventions, since agencies will be more likely to be successful through the funding process if they’re prioritizing those types of requests for the LFC and the governor's budget office.

An emerging strategy: LegisStat

A third strategy is unique and very new. In August of this year, the LFC did something that I believe no other legislative committee in the U.S. has done to date: It launched a “PerformanceStat” initiative. The idea is to have ongoing, data-driven performance reviews between leadership and departments or divisions. Unlike check-in meetings that most organizational leaders run, where the focus is on the hot topics of the week or month, PerformanceStat meetings keep coming back to the same set of organizational challenges until they’re fixed.

The LFC adapted that approach to a legislative context, dubbing it “LegisStat.” Instead of a mayor or governor running the meeting, the leadership team is the LFC, led by committee chair Patricia Lundstrom. An important goal of the initiative is to change the dynamic of the typical committee hearing, which is often dominated by lengthy agency presentations and may not tackle the most important agency performance challenges. LegisStat reverses that, with short agency presentations and most of the time spent on those challenges, with handouts that ground the discussion in data trends.

The pilot LegisStat meeting in August 2021 focused on New Mexico’s economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic. Two more LegisStat meetings were held in October, focused on K-12 and higher education. Based on the committee’s direction, we hope to have quarterly LegisStat meetings for all large agencies in the coming year.

What it takes

Forward progress on building evidence, program inventories, and LegisStat have all required legislators, as well as partners in the governor’s office, who care deeply about results and about maximizing the positive impact of state spending on people’s lives. It has also helped to have a robust LFC staff with a long-standing reputation for unbiased, rigorous analysis to help support that progress. Important too has been external partners, such as the Results First initiative.

Today, our state motto, “Crescit Eundo” meaning “it grows as it goes,” is a good summary of the growing emphasis on evidence within our budget process. We hope to continue that progress in the years ahead.

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