Leaders in Salt Lake County, Utah, observed a troubling trend in one of its communities, the Kearns Metro Township: They found that local youth had higher rates of alcohol and nicotine use, gang involvement, and mental health symptoms as compared to the rest of the state.
They convened a community coalition—with local government representatives, community members, and service providers—to review the resources offered to youth to see if there was a way to address this problem. The coalition inventoried available public programs, compared those programs to the needs identified, and found areas where more resources could help mitigate the trends they had observed. After consulting a national research clearinghouse to find programs that have been rigorously evaluated and proved effective in serving populations similar to theirs, the coalition chose two new programs—shown to help reduce substance use in adolescents—to support families and help youth avoid risky behaviors.
Many county leaders are on the frontlines of delivering crucial services to their communities. Yet without a robust understanding of what needs exist, what programs are offered, and which are most effective, these decision makers are ill-equipped to make strategic choices that best serve their constituents.
Evidence-based policymaking—which uses the best available research and information on program effectiveness to guide funding and policy decisions—can help county commissioners, managers, agency heads, and others determine what programs can provide the greatest impact for their residents.
A new report from the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative and the National Association of Counties takes a first-of-its kind look at how counties engage in evidence-based policymaking. According to the report’s findings, some counties across the country are indicating an interest in using evidence—in a variety of ways, across a wide swath of policy areas—to make their decisions more effective and efficient. For example, counties are:
- Deploying health resources by need and region. Every three years, Oklahoma City-County, Oklahoma, collects data to determine community health needs and inform planning decisions. Working with community partners, the county targets specific resources to areas and populations that need them most to ensure equitable access to health services.
- Dedicating staff and resources to monitor program performance. In Olmsted County, Minnesota, a team of six analysts works to help identify gaps in service, track outcomes, and ensure implementation of program changes in the health and human services agency. By analyzing data, identifying and reviewing trends, and developing plans to implement needed changes, this team provides a broad perspective to help ensure that county programs are meeting their goals.
- Utilizing the expertise of local universities. Outagamie County, Wisconsin, struggled with drunk driving offenses in a state with one of the highest frequencies of alcohol-impaired driving in the nation. County leaders decided to employ a program called Safe Streets Treatment Options Program (SSTOP), which aims to provide treatment and rehabilitation services to individuals with operating while intoxicated (OWI) offenses. After introducing the program, the county went one step further and partnered with a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor to help assess the impact of the program. The professor found that SSTOP resulted in a 31 percent reduction in the county’s OWI offenses.
- Using research clearinghouses to assess the effectiveness of funded programs. Leaders in Montgomery County, Maryland, turned to the Results First Clearinghouse Database, a resource providing information on effectiveness of social policy programs from nine national clearinghouses, to review the evidence behind 30 of the county’s specialized detention services programs. Their assessment found that most of those services were shown by rigorous research to be effective and appropriate for the populations served. It also enabled leaders to identify several programs with limited or no rigorous research supporting their effectiveness, which they now plan to evaluate to ensure the programs are delivering the outcomes they’re meant to achieve.
Though some counties have started incorporating evidence into their budget and policy decisions, many of these efforts are in their infancy. The report ffers more examples of jurisdictions employing evidence, as well as some observations about trends, lessons learned, and ways local governments can advance the use of evidence in their communities. For more information or to see the full report, visit the Results First website.
Sara Dube is a director and Priya Singh is a senior associate with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative.