Journal article Open Access
What if policymakers allocated government funding based on scientific evidence of what works, instead of anecdote, status quo, or political belief? In most major policy debates, compelling—but theoretical— arguments can be made on both sides. But despite increasing pressure to “use big data” to inform decisions especially when resources are scarce, it’s often challenging for policymakers to disaggregate the impacts of a specific program from broader economic and societal conditions—and to separate good research from bad. By using data they already collect and applying the same scientific tool that transformed modern medicine—randomized evaluations—to social policy, researchers and policymakers can work together to cut through opinion and build an arsenal of rigorous evidence in its place.
Despite the hyperpartisan climate of politics in many areas of the world today, the evidence-based policymaking movement is gaining traction. In the United States, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, Democratic Senator Patty Murray and President Obama came together last year to enact legislation creating a federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which aims to develop a strategy for increasing the availability and use of data to build evidence about government programs. State and local governments—who are collectively responsible for spending $2.5 trillion each year (about 40 percent of the total government spending)—are also joining in. In Washington State, for example, state human services departments track and report the percentage of funding allocated for evidence-based and/or research-based programs.
Reorienting government decision-making to identify and fund programs that work can be slow and challenging, but can make a real difference in people’s lives. We offer five concrete steps state and local policymakers can take to use data effectively and ensure the greatest return on taxpayer dollars