Minnesota stands out as a state that embraces a data-driven approach to governance. Leaders have made regular practice of using research and data to inform policy decisions, which has made the state’s approach a model for others.
The state has taken part in the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative since 2015 with an initial focus on state corrections and human services programs, but Governor Tim Walz (DFL) has elevated the focus since taking office at the start of 2019. He offers his perspective on how the state has successfully used evidence in setting policies and priorities. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Why is it important for government to use evidence of program effectiveness when making decisions?
A: Our residents deserve to have our resources used as effectively as possible. We have a moral obligation to take the time to figure out which programs are producing intended results and to improve those that aren’t. This is true for any intended outcome, whether it’s helping more students graduate, increasing access to affordable health care, creating jobs, or keeping our communities safe.
Q: Two months after taking office, your first budget included 17 proposals—representing increased investments of nearly $150 million—that were supported by evidence that they would reduce criminal behavior, improve academic achievement, increase housing stability, and prevent substance use disorder and premature death. How were you able to make this a priority so quickly?
A: Today we have unprecedented access to information about public programs. The key is to make sure we use this data in the budgeting process. I asked cabinet members to include this information when they developed their budget proposals, and I also used it—combined with input from communities across the state—as I reviewed proposals and decided what to include in my first budget. We’re using the same process for the upcoming budget proposal that I’m now putting together. By integrating this information into the budget forms and decision-making materials, you can ensure that decisions are data-driven and evidence-based.
Q: Many of your evidence-based proposals were approved by the nation’s only divided state legislature. Was that difficult?
A: I campaigned on building “One Minnesota,” where people from all different backgrounds come together around shared values to improve lives. Evidence can help lawmakers find this common ground. Elected officials are often looking to achieve similar outcomes and struggle to agree on the best way to do it. By focusing on scientific evidence of what works, we can all get on the same page. The version of that first budget that I signed into law also included evidence-based proposals that were initiated by the legislature. I looked at the evidence for lawmakers’ proposals and agreed that they were worthy investments. That’s how governing is supposed to work.
Q: Many look to Minnesota as a leader in evidence-based policymaking. What have been the keys to your success in this area?
A: We’re committed to ongoing learning from local partners, peer states, and national experts such as the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative. City and county government and other service providers are also critical partners that can help us understand local challenges and opportunities. We often proudly model ideas after best practices in peer states so we don’t waste resources re-creating the wheel.
Q: How do you see your evidence-based policymaking efforts evolving in the years moving forward? What more do you hope to achieve? What innovations are you eyeing down the road?
A: We recently adopted a strategic plan that lays out bold and measurable goals in areas that Minnesotans have told us are important. We’ll be focusing in areas such as increasing access to child care, improving children’s mental health, and ensuring parents have the education and training needed to earn a family-sustaining wage. As we work to achieve these goals, we’re going to use the full evidence-based policymaking toolbox, everything from program assessment to outcome monitoring and program evaluation. As we proceed, we’re committed to hearing from folks who haven’t traditionally had access to decision-makers. We have an opportunity to integrate the wisdom of these voices with scientific evidence in ways that will enable us to produce even better results.