Articles What Is Evidence-Based Policy? A view from the US

What Is Evidence-Based Policy? A view from the US

The rise of “evidence-based policy” has resulted in confusion regarding its definition, writes Ron Haskins Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC. This makes it the responsibility of those committed to evidence-based policy to provide a clear definition in the hopes of garnering greater political support. Efforts by the Bush and now the Obama administration have brought evidence-based policymaking into the heart of federal policymaking. Over time these efforts will result a diversification of the field. Developments that Haskins argues should be unified by efforts to ensure that all types of evidence-based policy will continue to be based on rigorous and reliable evidence.

The term “evidence-based policy” is all the rage. As often happens when a term becomes popular, it is difficult to know precisely what it means. So it makes sense for those of us committed to evidence-based policy to carefully define what we mean, especially if we hope to urge policymakers to expand it.

Obama’s definition of “evidence-based policy”

Although there will be many legitimate types of evidence-based policy, all hinge on applying rigorous evidence to policy choice. Credit for providing the most robust definition of “evidence-based policy” goes to the Obama administration, continuing a policy that was evident in embryonic form during the George W. Bush administration. “Evidence-based policy” in the Obama lexicon has two defining characteristics: first, spending the lion’s share of government funds to attack social problems using model programmes that have rigorous evidence of impacts on important outcomes; and second, conducting continuous evaluation of results while using the results to improve failing or mediocre programmes.

Targeting Federal funding at “evidence-based” initiatives

As Greg Margolis and I recount in detail in Show Me the Evidence (2015), the Obama administration planned, pushed through Congress, and is now implementing six evidence-based initiatives of this type. These initiatives are evidence-based in both senses of the definition offered above. First, the administration is spending most of its money on programmes shown by rigorous evidence to produce impacts on important outcomes such as reduced teen pregnancy, increased school readiness, less delinquency, better preparation for employment, and so forth. Second, all six initiatives have funding for evaluations, many featuring rigorous designs. Further, several of the initiatives are having national evaluations that feature rigorous designs and involve multiple sites employing model programmes.

Making provisions for promising, if evidence-lite, innovations

Several caveats are in order. First, all the Obama evidence-based initiatives leave room for innovative programmes in which the evidence requirements are lowered to accommodate innovation. Some initiatives, for example, designate 75 percent of their funding to replicate and expand model programmes already supported by rigorous evidence and 25 percent for innovative programmes.

An eye on the future: building our evidence base

Second, developing new model programmes with scientific evidence of impacts on important social outcomes is a vital part of evidence-based policy. Two decades ago it would have made little sense to require governments and foundations to spend their money on model social programmes supported by strong evidence because there were so few social programmes with evidence from rigorous evaluations showing impacts. But now, as demonstrated by the websites of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, the Institute for Education Sciences, and others, there are model programmes supported by rigorous evidence in preschool education, reading, teen pregnancy prevention, home visiting, delinquency prevention, high school graduation, employment, and many others. It is these programmes that should receive the bulk of funding for scale-up to new sites from government and foundations, but funds should also be spent developing new programmes. Developing new programmes is an especially appropriate role for foundations; foundations can take chances because they are not accountable to taxpayers.

“Evidence-based policy” is diversifying but unified by rigour

Third, as the field of evidence-based policy develops, it is to be expected that there will be several distinct types of activities – such as social impact bonds – that will fall under the term “evidence-based policy.” This diversification of the field should be encouraged. The unifying theme in all types of evidence-based policy, however, will continue to be rigorous evidence of programme impacts on important outcomes. To quote the recent highly regarded book from Judy Gueron and Howard Rolston, our fight is for reliable evidence. With it, we can revolutionize social policy.

Interested in reading other blogs in our series from the USA and Canada? Check out ‘America Plays Moneyball: promoting data-driven government‘ & ‘We need to turn up the volume on this quiet revolution‘.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.