North Carolina Funds Data Analysts and Program Evaluation to Strengthen Evidence Use
Legislators and state budget office support efforts to infuse research into agency operations
Leaders in North Carolina’s executive and legislative branches are investing in more tools and personnel to study the impact of publicly funded programs and determine how to deliver them with greater efficiency to the state’s residents.
The Legislature’s biennial budget, signed into law by Governor Roy Cooper (D) in November 2021, included several “good governance” provisions recommended by the state’s Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM). These include 16 new data analyst and auditor positions, a $1 million fund for competitive evaluation and research grants, and requirements to assess specific programs. These commitments expand state evidence-based policymaking efforts that also have included cost-benefit analyses, program assessments, and research partnerships.
Cross-branch commitment to using evidence to assess performance
In 2020, OSBM convened a Performance Management Academy to train agency analysts to use research methods with internal information sources to strengthen strategic planning efforts. The experience showed policymakers that some agencies had greater needs for research staff than others. In response, OSBM leaders recommended that the Legislature fund additional data analyst and performance auditor positions in the agencies with the greatest gaps. Such staff funding can help governments limit risk by ensuring that agencies use administrative data to understand how their programs are working and that annual budgets are focused on programs that have proved effective.
The executive branch found bipartisan support for these positions and funds dedicated to evaluations and research. Leaders in the governor’s budget office built relationships with legislators by holding one-on-one meetings, giving committee testimony, and communicating the purpose and value of these measures.
State Representative Dennis Riddell (R) supported efforts to increase the focus on evidence as a member of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Performance Management and the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on General Government.
“It’s something everyone can be on board with. It’s not partisan to see that if we don’t waste a dollar here, then we get a dollar there,” said Riddell. “The people who pay the bills deserve to know we’re not going to fund a program because we always have but because it has shown to be working and it has delivered on its promises.”
The new investments also build on the OSBM’s “operational excellence” services to agencies, which include strategic planning, a Results First initiative, regulatory analysis, and impact analyses. Separately, the Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP) within OSBM develops, launches, and supports partnerships between agency staff and the state’s research and philanthropic sectors.
Adding program analysts and auditors will improve accountability
The budget approved last fall added nine full-time equivalent program analyst and seven internal auditor positions across six agencies: the Department of Administration, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Information Technology, the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the Department of Public Instruction, and OSBM. Some will be used to “implement evidence-based program design and management,” according to the appropriations act.
The positions are intended for people with research, science, and evaluation backgrounds. Because the statute directs agencies to fill the jobs in collaboration with OSBM, budget and management staff have provided suggestions for job descriptions and helped with hiring interviews.
Kristin Walker, chief deputy budget director at OSBM, said she expects the investments in an evidence-backed approach to “provide better information for government planning and decisions. It will help us show greater accountability in how taxpayer revenue is spent.”
Later this year, OSBM leaders intend to build a research working group to bring together staff from agencies to share lessons learned and best practices. That process will start with roundtable meetings for research scientists, data analysts, and program auditors to discuss their current needs and solutions to further their learning, monitoring, and planning goals.
New grant fund will encourage collaboration with external research partners
The Legislature also authorized a new fund for OSBM to provide $1 million in grants over two years to state agencies for research and evaluation. Policymakers want these awards to be used by or agencies to build partnerships with North Carolina research institutions to conduct studies that directly inform policy and program decisions.
“We are building on the great work we’re already doing with strategic partnerships where if we have a problem or question in state government, we might find a researcher or someone who’s an expert in that area, we can matchmake them,” said Charles Perusse, the state budget director. “And this gives us an opportunity to take our evaluation efforts to another level.”
North Carolina state agencies and researchers can learn about research partnership opportunities and find potential partners through the NC Project Portal, which OSP launched in February. Agencies post their needs for evaluation and research for scholars and others to review and respond to when they see an opportunity to partner and provide expertise related to the stated need.
“I hope the portal can be a mechanism for maximizing meaningful and substantial partnership between state agencies and researchers and minimizing the labor needed for potential partners in government and research to identify each other and initiate collaboration,” said Jenni Owen, director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships.
The appropriations measure also provides funding for specific outcome evaluations for several programs that the state piloted or that agencies have established in recent years. The programs reflect a range of services, including tobacco use and cessation programs, youth foster care and transitional services, a veterans health care program, and freshwater treatment.
By funding personnel positions and grants for evaluation and research, North Carolina has strengthened its capacity to generate vital information for program and policy decisions. That will help ensure that public resources are allocated in ways that bring beneficial outcomes.
Steve Lize and Alex Sileo work on state partnerships for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Results First initiative.