Opinion

Why Evidence-Based Policymaking Is Just the Beginning

In delivering social services and other programs, measuring effectiveness is critical

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State legislatures are turning to evidence-based policymaking as a way to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and effectively. This is a very important development. For example, many states -- in response to research confirming that the early years of childhood affect learning, behavior and health for a lifetime -- have invested in family support and coaching programs.

These programs, often referred to as "home visiting," focus on strengthening vulnerable families during the critical period before age 5. Evidence shows that families that participate in visiting programs are often more stable and self-sufficient and are better able to handle stress. At the same time, parents who benefit from family support and coaching programs frequently raise their children with greater skill and confidence, leaving the children safer, healthier and better prepared to learn and grow.

Funding these kinds of programs based on evidence of their benefits is an important step in the right direction for policymakers. But it is only the beginning. Evidence plays a critical role throughout the life of the program -- from legislation and planning to design and implementation. And that is where performance monitoring comes into play.

Performance measures for home visiting are not new. They have, for the most part, been used to track visits, basic client demographics and completed tasks such as screenings for maternal depression -- but not outcomes. These data, while helpful for understanding the broad context that these programs operate in and the populations they work with, provide little insight about a program's effectiveness. Moreover, not all home visiting programs are the same. They vary in focus, content and target populations, and states typically invest in more than one approach. This makes it difficult to determine the overall impact of a state's investment in family support and coaching programs.

To help accurately measure outcomes across a portfolio of these programs, several states joined with The Pew Charitable Trusts to develop and launch the Home Visiting Data and Performance Initiative. The initiative identified key indicators to measure performance in three distinct areas: maternal health and educational achievement; child health, development and safety; and parental skills and capacity.

These indicators and measurement approaches are management tools that give state and local officials a clearer picture of who is being served, how successfully they're being helped, and the availability of community supports. They build on what states and localities are already collecting and focus on results that are clearly achievable by family support and coaching programs.

Performance monitoring requires measuring both outcomes and the processes used to reach those outcomes, as well as a recognition that the methods and how they are used will become more sophisticated as states' family support and coaching efforts mature. For example, measuring the number of women screened for depression is a good place to start, but eventually states will want to measure how many women were successfully treated.

Developing legislation on the basis of rigorous research is a critical first step toward effective policymaking. Using good data and sound performance measures in all phases of state programs -- not just for family support and coaching but also for criminal justice, public health and many others -- will help policymakers at all levels of government ensure that their work achieves the strongest results.

For a more detailed look at performance indicators for home visiting programs compiled by the Pew initiative, click here.

This column was also published by Governing.com.

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