How States Engage in Evidence-Based Policymaking

A national assessment

States Engage in Evidence-Based Policymaking
Evidence-based policymaking

© Getty Images


Evidence-based policymaking is the systematic use of findings from program evaluations and outcome analyses (“evidence”) to guide government policy and funding decisions. By focusing limited resources on public services and programs that have been shown to produce positive results, governments can expand their investments in more cost-effective options, consider reducing funding for ineffective programs, and improve the outcomes of services funded by taxpayer dollars.

While the term “evidence-based policymaking” is growing in popularity in state capitols, there is limited information about the extent to which states employ the approach. This report seeks to address this gap by: 1) identifying six distinct actions that states can use to incorporate research findings into their decisions, 2) assessing the prevalence and level of these actions within four human service policy areas across 50 states and the District of Columbia, and 3) categorizing each state based on the final results.

The study finds:

  • Five states lead the way in evidence-based policymaking.
    • Washington, Utah, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Oregon are leading in evidence-based policymaking by developing processes and tools that use evidence to inform policy and budget decisions across the areas examined.
    • 11 states show established levels of evidence-based policymaking by pursuing more actions than most states but either not as frequently or in as advanced a manner as the leading states. 
    • 27 states and the District of Columbia demonstrate modest engagement in this work, pursuing actions less frequently and in less advanced ways.
    • Seven states are trailing, taking very few evidence-based policymaking actions.
  • Most states have taken some evidence-based policymaking actions in at least one human service policy area, but advanced application is less common.
    • Defining levels of evidence can allow state leaders to distinguish proven programs from those that have not been evaluated. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have defined at least one level of evidence, such as “evidence-based”; 23 of the 40 have created an advanced definition that distinguishes multiple levels of rigor, such as “evidence-based” and “promising.”
    • Inventorying state programs can help governments to manage available resources strategically. Forty-nine states and the District have produced an inventory of state-funded programs; 29 of the 50 have created an advanced inventory that classifies programs by evidence of effectiveness.
    • Comparing program costs and benefits would allow policymakers to weigh the costs of public programs against the outcomes and economic returns they deliver. Seventeen states have conducted cost-benefit analyses; 16 of the 17 have created an advanced analysis that monetizes benefits to calculate return on investment.
    • Reporting outcomes and program effectiveness can help policymakers identify which investments are generating positive results and use this information to better prioritize and direct funds. Forty-one states and the District reported or required key outcome data during the fiscal year 2013-17 budget cycles; 13 of the 42 have created advanced budget materials that include findings from program evaluations.
    • Targeting funding to evidence-based programs, such as through a grant or contract, can help states implement and expand these proven approaches. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have such a funding mechanism; five of the 50 have created advanced mechanisms to dedicate at least 50 percent of program funds for a specific policy area toward these initiatives.
    • Requiring action through state law, which includes administrative codes, executive orders, and statutes, can help states sustain support for evidence-based policymaking. Thirty-three states and the District have developed a framework of laws to support one or more of the five advanced actions listed above in at least one policy area; 11 of the 34 states have created an advanced framework of laws to support two or more advanced actions.
State policymaking

Although many states are embracing evidence-based policymaking, leaders often face challenges in embedding this approach into the decision-making process of state and local governments. This report identifies how staff and stakeholder education, strong data infrastructure, and analytical and technical capacity can help leaders build and sustain support for this work and achieve better outcomes for their communities.

State policymaking

National Homeownership Month


37 Researchers Working to Transform Biomedical Science

Quick View

Biomedical researchers are on the front lines of scientific innovation. From responding to global pandemics to pioneering lifesaving cancer treatments, these researchers push past scientific boundaries to solve pressing health challenges. For nearly 40 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported more than 1,000 early-career biomedical scientists committed to this discovery.


Evidence-Based Policymaking: Findings From States

Quick View

In a new report, the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative assesses the prevalence and sophistication of six key evidence-based policymaking actions—in each state and the District of Columbia—across four policy areas: behavioral health, child welfare, criminal justice, and juvenile justice. States are categorized as Leading, Established, Modest, or Trailing in their levels of evidence-based policymaking.

Press Releases & Statements

Five States Lead the Way in Pursuing Evidence-Based Policymaking

New 50-state study assesses how states use research to identify and fund programs that work

Quick View
Press Releases & Statements

Washington—Five states lead the way in using evidence-based policymaking—employing research that can help inform their budget and policy decisions—according to a new report from the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative. The report, How States Engage in Evidence-Based Policymaking: A National Assessment, categorizes each state by its level of engagement in six key actions across four policy areas: behavioral health, child welfare, criminal justice, and juvenile justice.

This video is hosted by YouTube. In order to view it, you must consent to the use of “Marketing Cookies” by updating your preferences in the Cookie Settings link below. View on YouTube

This video is hosted by YouTube. In order to view it, you must consent to the use of “Marketing Cookies” by updating your preferences in the Cookie Settings link below. View on YouTube

Evidence-Based Policymaking Made Easy by 'Results First' Tool
Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.