The following commentary by MacArthur President Julia Stasch and Rebecca Rimel was originally published in The Mercury News on April 22, 2016.
With 2016 already in full swing, legislators across the country are beginning the difficult task of allocating limited taxpayer dollars to programs that will have the greatest benefit for the most people. Our organizations have worked with states for many years, and we know that determining which programs to fund—and at what level—is no easy task. Legislators too often lack critical information, such as an inventory of existing state programs, the cost of these initiatives, evidence of their effectiveness and the expected outcomes each would generate if continued. Without this information, lawmakers are handicapped in meeting their primary responsibility to ensure that constituents receive an appropriate return on public dollars.
State and local leaders certainly recognize that their citizens—and their bottom lines—would benefit from a focus on maximizing return on investment. To help, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation created the Results First initiative in 2010. Today, legislators and managers from 22 states and four California counties have partnered with Results First to bring evidence-based decision-making to their constituencies. Earlier this year, Pew and MacArthur committed an additional $18 million to continue this important work, bringing our shared investment in Results First to more than $30 million.
Here's how it works. State and local leaders identify which programs work and which don't. They do that by calculating potential returns on investment; ranking programs based on their projected benefits, costs and risks; identifying effective programs that can be expanded and ineffective ones that can be cut or eliminated; and using evidence to predict the impact of various policy options.
Corrections is one area in which data make a real difference. New Mexico, for example, developed a sophisticated cost-benefit analysis model in collaboration with Results First to inform policy and budget decisions. The analysis showed that the state could avoid $8.3 million in taxpayer costs and more than $40 million in societal costs by reducing the recidivism rate by 10 percent through investments in evidence-based correctional education and treatment programs.
In California, four counties are using Results First to confront the new challenges presented by the state's Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011. Fresno, Kern, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz turned to evidence-based policymaking to meet the requirements of this legislation.
Kern County, for example, is using its analyses to inform decisions about jail and community supervision programming and is systematically replacing ineffective programs with evidence-based alternatives that have proved to deliver positive results. A cross-agency team has developed an inventory of programs to help the county better understand the full range of services it offers, their costs and the evidence of effectiveness for each program. In an effort to track program quality and performance, the county has invested in an evidence-based staff unit to monitor program implementation and outcomes.
Building on this successful effort, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is now partnering with Results First to inventory and analyze its prison and parole programs.
The effective use of evidence-based policymaking in these jurisdictions makes a strong case for an expansion of this approach. As states and localities recover from the Great Recession and budget for the upcoming fiscal year, they must meet the urgent public demand for greater efficiency, accountability and transparency. In short, they need to put results first. There is no more certain path to that goal than making sure that positive results are the first priority for every service government provides.
Julia Stasch is president of the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Rebecca Rimel is president and chief executive office of The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington.