After difficult months dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many state policymakers have turned their attention to vaccine distribution and new pandemic-related concerns but are hopeful that an end to the worst may be in sight. State budgets, however, continue to be affected by the economic shockwaves caused by the rapid spread of COVID-19. Still, as state legislators grapple with how best to respond to a changing fiscal environment, they can take certain steps to avoid making indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to public programs.
The National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL’s) new Center for Results-Driven Governing recently released an issue brief to help legislators and their staff address these challenges. The brief highlights key questions that lawmakers can ask to help ensure that evidence and data are used in budget and policy decisions in upcoming sessions, and in the years ahead. The findings mirror many of those in a September 2020 issue brief from Results First that focused on how state budget offices and agencies nationwide are incorporating evidence to make strategic decisions about potential budget cuts.
NCSL’s publication suggests that legislators and staff members ask more targeted questions about how state agencies are collecting and employing data. They can then consider agency responses in their budget decisions and make more strategic investments. The brief recommends that lawmakers explore whether state budgets address the most critical problems and unmet needs, whether state funded programs are proven to work, and whether the money spent on programs is worth the cost. It also showcases tools, strategies, and other resources that legislators and their staffs can use to gauge responses from executive branch leaders.
Results First resources
Results First has developed tools and researched best practices that can help answer several of the questions outlined in the NCSL issue brief. Among the available resources and strategies are:
- Program inventory guidance. Legislators can learn more about publicly funded programs in their states through program inventories, comprehensive lists of the interventions a jurisdiction funds in specific policy areas. The inventories include key information about each program, such as populations served, how long participants typically take part, overall costs, and the evidence that demonstrates whether it is effective. Legislators can then use these inventories to inform budget decisions, fill identified gaps in service, or direct limited funding toward those that have proved effective. And, as NCSL notes, legislators can use inventories to develop more informed questions for agency officials during oversight hearings.
- Results First Clearinghouse Database. As legislators seek to meet the needs of residents, they can draw on information from research clearinghouses to find programs that most effectively address these concerns. Clearinghouses are online databases that gather information on how well interventions across a range of policy areas are working.
They provide information about outcomes, populations served, and whether a specific program has proved effective. To simplify searching for programmatic information, Results First created the Results First Clearinghouse Database, which consolidates research in various policy areas into a searchable, sortable database. Policymakers can use this tool to identify programs or ask questions about which interventions could fill gaps in services and meet the shifting needs of the communities they serve.
- Strategies for evidence thresholds. Legislators can use information from program inventories and clearinghouses to set priorities for relevant executive branch agencies and their staffs. Evidence thresholds encourage or require agencies to direct a specific amount of overall funding toward evidence-based programs. Spelling this out in legislation helps to clarify how evidence will be defined, and how states will monitor agency compliance.
Lawmakers can then gradually increase these thresholds, holding agencies to higher standards in subsequent years while allowing some flexibility in how they meet the targets. For example, legislation might require agencies to prioritize evidence-based programs in 25% of overall funding in the first year and raise the requirement to 75% in the fifth year.
Beyond these tools and best practices, NCSL’s brief highlights additional strategies that legislators can use to make sure they ask the right questions and gather critical data to inform budget decisions during times of economic uncertainty. The publication highlights the need for legislators to reflect on lessons learned from recent public health and economic crises. By considering what information is necessary for decision-making over the course of the year, policymakers can begin to implement new tools and strategies to help ensure that this data is available when needed in years to come.
Sara Dube is a project director and Alex Sileo is a senior associate with the Results First initiative.
States Can Set Funding Thresholds That Promote Evidence-Based Programs
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