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States can use federal stimulus money to assess program effectiveness

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As states continue to respond to the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers should seek to use federal stimulus funds to strengthen efforts to regularly assess program effectiveness and use the evidence more broadly. to invest in policies and programs that have proven to be effective. .

The federal government provides additional support to states through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which was signed by President Joe Biden in March. ARPA provides $ 195 billion in flexible financing for state governments, an allocation that creates a significant opportunity for decision makers to address immediate challenges and develop sustainable approaches to moving forward.

The bailout represents a one-time influx of federal funding and states should work to avoid the kind of missteps taken in response to past stimulus programs. Policymakers should aim to spend that money with a combination of one-time investments and temporarily funding running expenses until their savings fully recover. By taking a long-term view to strengthen the fiscal health of their states, policymakers can ensure that funds are spent appropriately in the short term without creating fiscal cliffs over time.

One area of ​​potential spending that balances these priorities is impact assessments, which help heads of state make evidence-based funding decisions. Policymakers can use ARPA money to fund pilot projects and evaluate outcomes, a process that can help build the immediate capacity to gather evidence and allow them to continue to rely on rigorous research to inform budgetary and policy decisions in the future.

Why impact evaluations are important

An impact evaluation is a rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of a program, especially since it affects specific populations. This information can then inform decision makers’ decisions about which interventions to support, revise or eliminate. Unlike performance monitoring systems, these evaluations use experimental designs to look beyond trends in program performance to illustrate which elements of the program are generating positive results.

Impact assessments allow heads of state to have the evidence they need to invest in what works and to have a long-term budget vision. They can scale up successful pilots, improve programs with promising results, and replace those that fail.

These assessments, however, can be expensive, requiring highly trained staff and access to a variety of data. Fortunately, ARPA funds can be used “Improve the effectiveness of programs … including through the use of data analytics, targeted consumer awareness, improvement of data or technological infrastructure, and impact evaluations [emphasis added]. “Using this money to support impact assessment would help states in the long run, increasing their ability to use evidence to inform budget and policy decisions long after they have exhausted funding for pilot programs.

How States Invested in and Learned from Impact Assessments

Results First has partnered with several states working to increase their capacity to understand and use evidence to answer key policy questions and inform decisions. For example, after analysts working in the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) observed consistently low literacy rates among the state’s children, they began to examine the available data to determine possible underlying causes and find evidence-based solutions to consider. By identifying improved access to pre-K as a potentially effective investment of taxpayer dollars, the LFC first conducted a program evaluation in 2014 to determine if this would lead to positive results.

After finding probable long-term positive results such as higher reading scores, reduced participation in special education, and a reduction in the number of third-graders retained, the LFC recommended that policymakers spend $ 28 million in additional funding for high school programs. early childhood, including $ 6.5 million specifically for kindergarten. Then, LFC found in 2020 report that the state’s percentage of program participants reading at the grade level in both kindergarten and grade three had improved.

Several Results First partner states have strengthened their capacity to conduct impact evaluations like the one above. With additional statutory funding, Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) now conducts such assessments through grants offered by the State Opioid Outbreak Response Advisory Council. The MMB board and impact assessment unit work together to conduct rigorous evaluations of publicly funded programs in opioid education, prevention, treatment and recovery services. This effort will help policymakers improve the state’s response to the opioid epidemic.

Colorado, meanwhile, has long-standing funding opportunities for impact assessment as part of an effort to create a culture of using evidence in state agencies. The governor’s office administers an Implementation and Evaluation Grants program to provide individual grants to state agencies for evaluation efforts. Since fiscal year 2018, the State State Planning and Budget Office Awarded approximately $ 500,000 per year to support program implementation or outcome evaluation. For example, this money supported the evaluation of the State Grant for School Bullying Prevention and Education, the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, and the Colorado Pretrial Assessment Tool. The governor’s office also supports agencies when they request additional funds from the legislature to conduct assessments.

Impact assessments offer a series of benefits to states. Policy makers can use ARPA funds to kick start or further develop their capacities and build on the momentum to move work forward more effectively and efficiently. ARPA money can be a one-time investment to set up new assessment units or fund pilot projects to demonstrate whether certain investments merit additional support. As heads of state determine their priorities for flexible funding for ARPA, they should consider supporting impact assessments and other evidence-based policy-making reforms.

Sara Dube is Project Director and Alex Sileo is Senior Associate of the Results First initiative.