North Carolina Leverages State Research Capacity to Improve Government Performance

Leaders partner with academics and nonprofit organizations to drive evidence-based policy decisions

North Carolina Leverages State Research Capacity to Improve Government Performance
North Carolina State Capitol

State government leaders across the country can benefit from using rigorous research to inform policy and program proposals, but they can face difficulties finding experts who are well-suited to helping them use that evidence in policy contexts. Researchers, meanwhile, want their work to inform more effective government approaches but may not know how best to engage with state officials.

North Carolina’s Office of Strategic Partnerships (OSP) addresses these challenges by leveraging the state’s robust research capacity, as well as the expertise and resources of the philanthropic sector, to answer crucial policy questions and improve public administration. Building and enhancing collaborative networks of public officials and research partners are enriching state efforts to use evidence in government decision-making.

North Carolina is home to more than 110 colleges and universities. In 2018, Governor Roy Cooper (D) appointed Jenni Owen as the state’s first director of strategic partnerships. The charge included connecting state agencies with higher education institutions and nongovernmental organizations to help answer policy and program questions that could improve outcomes for all North Carolinians.

A framework for creating lasting government research partnerships

OSP, housed in the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management, has been developing and institutionalizing a model intended to cultivate agency research agendas, connect state agency officials with researchers, launch studies, and help the state benefit from the knowledge and community experience of philanthropic partners. Multiple projects that vary in time frame and scope are currently underway.

For example, behavioral science experts from the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, the University of North Carolina School of Law, and the Policy Lab at Brown University are working on a field experiment with the North Carolina Department of Revenue. This interdisciplinary team is examining whether modifying department “communication with households and businesses that are behind on tax payments increases timely tax collections and decreases the need for enforcement measures, such as fees and garnishments.”

Other OSP projects have involved finding sources of technical assistance for state agencies. For example, Department of Public Safety staff needed assistance with a complicated accounting formula used to calculate funds unspent by service providers at the end of the year. OSP helped the department connect its staff to faculty at the University of North Carolina School of Government who helped adjust the formula and gave the department assurance that its work was accurate.

“With their guidance, in an hour on Zoom we were able to adjust the formula to produce an accurate calculation,’’ said Cindy Porterfield, who directs the department’s juvenile community programs. “It was a lovely example of resourceful, smart collaboration and working collectively to solve a small but impactful problem. We have since continued to engage with the School of Government faculty and look forward to future partnerships.”  

Creation of such partnerships and their successes stem from agency leaders’ buy-in and from staffers’ commitment to project scoping and implementation.

“The Office of Strategic Partnerships already has had an important impact,” said Charlie Perusse, director of the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM). “It supports and reinforces OSBM’s mission and is consistent with the recent substantial reorganization of the budget office to focus on working with agencies on enhanced strategic goal setting and implementation for the benefit of all North Carolinians.”

OSP also has been working to help agencies identify, refine, and share research needs with faculty, researchers, and students. The office hosts informational calls for key agency staff and interested researchers to lay the groundwork for potential partnerships.

To support overall government-research collaboration, OSP hosts a regular cross-sector webinar series called Monthly Connect on topics relevant to partnerships among state government, research institutions including colleges and universities, philanthropies, and others. The office publishes monthly highlights to communicate current and emerging projects and opportunities.

What started as one person engaged in these efforts has developed into an office in OSBM with three employees operating on a relatively small budget. Resources come from a mix of state and private sources and are used for purposes such as expanding capacity and outreach, supporting research projects, and providing undergraduate and graduate student internship stipends. In addition, university and college faculty members have contributed pro bono research and expertise. OSP also cultivates partnerships with philanthropies for project input and financial support.

Building a culture of evidence

OSP’s mission aligns with a larger movement across the state to advance the use of data to drive decision-making. For instance, Gov. Cooper in 2018 signed Executive Order No. 43, which created the Advisory Committee on Performance Management. The committee, consisting of leaders from agencies, the Legislature, and academia, advises the governor’s office and agencies on the advancement of performance management and evidence-based policymaking efforts and develops best practices by learning from other states and professional organizations.

Complementing the work of OSP, OSBM is building capacity internally and across state agencies to advance evidence-based policymaking. OSBM has worked with Pew’s Results First initiative since 2017 to assess the research evidence supporting state public health and juvenile justice programs and to conduct cost-benefit analyses on a subset of these programs.

“The strategic partnerships work fits particularly well with the North Carolina Results First initiative and the bipartisan, multi-agency, and multisector Performance Management Advisory Committee, another asset for this collaborative work,” Perusse said.

OSBM also has worked to provide training to help agency staff members routinely use data to identify and invest in programs that will achieve the best outcomes for residents. Supplemented by OSP’s efforts to secure and sustain valuable research partnerships, state agencies are becoming better equipped to make informed decisions that will benefit North Carolinians.

For more information, visit North Carolina Office of Strategic Partnerships.

Sara Dube is a director, Alyssa Doom is an associate manager, and Steve Lize is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Results First initiative.

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