Because state and local governments often lack the resources, time, and expertise to conduct effective evaluations of public programs, they sometimes turn to external partners, such as local universities, to do the analysis or provide technical help. In Wisconsin, for example, state and county agencies regularly partner with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (PHI) to assess a range of human services programs.
These evaluations can be powerful tools to gauge the effectiveness of public programs. They can inform decisions about what’s working and what’s not; how to improve, scale up, or scale back certain services; and how to allocate limited public funds. Developing partnerships such as those in Wisconsin can help address the resource constraints on these governments.
For example, the Wisconsin departments of justice, corrections, and health services and the Director of State Courts Office have worked with PHI—which promotes evidence-based approaches to policy and practice—to evaluate the state’s Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) program since 2007. TAD—a collaboration of four human services agencies—provides evidence-based case management and treatment to nonviolent offenders to improve their welfare, reduce recidivism, and shrink prison and jail populations. When the agencies realized that the funds designated for evaluation and technical assistance were inadequate, they tapped into PHI’s expertise and were able to share the cost of the institute’s services.
PHI’s multiple evaluations of TAD demonstrated that the program had helped improve outcomes—such lowering recidivism rates and reducing time spent incarcerated—and had delivered positive returns on the state’s investment. Ultimately that led to a large expansion of the program after representatives of the TAD state partner agencies and PHI staff presented evaluation results to the Statewide Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the State Assembly Corrections Committee, individual legislators, and others as part of a broader effort to present evidence of the TAD model’s effectiveness.
Still, not all state agency-PHI partnerships focus on demonstrating impact. Some look at related research tasks, reviewing a program’s evidence base, for example, or advising agencies on appropriate data collection.
“We’ve also done a lot of work in substance use prevention, working with the state agencies as they make decisions about what programs should be funded by the subgrantees and what shouldn’t, helping them to manage and educate the subgrantees on the evidence base and program design options, design evaluation, and [to] collect appropriate data,” said Paul Moberg, research professor and senior faculty adviser of PHI’s evaluation research program. “[The evaluation work] has had a positive impact.”
PHI has even begun placing staff in state agencies—which often do not have enough staff to meet all programmatic and evaluation needs—to help expand their capacity to do this work. In this arrangement, the PHI employees get access to needed resources and collaborate with university staff while embedded in the agency. As permanent positions become available, some move to full-time state employment.
PHI leaders have identified several factors that enhance these research-policy partnerships. They are:
PHI’s collaborations with state and local agencies provide policymakers with evaluation expertise not otherwise available, and that gives them the data they need to make more informed decisions about the programs they fund.
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Sara Dube is a director and Priya Singh is a senior associate with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative.