Making the Case for Evidence-Based Decision-Making

Jennifer Brooks in Stanford Social Innovation Review: “After 15 years of building linkages between evidence, policy, and practice in social programs for children and families, I have one thing to say about our efforts to promote evidence-based decision-making: We have failed to capture the hearts and minds of the majority of decision-makers in the United States.

I’ve worked with state and federal leadership, as well as program administrators in the public and nonprofit spheres. Most of them just aren’t with us. They aren’t convinced that the payoffs of evidence-based practice (the method that uses rigorous tests to assess the efficacy of a given intervention) are worth the extra difficulty or expense of implementing those practices.

Why haven’t we gotten more traction for evidence-based decision-making? Three key reasons: 1) we have wasted time debating whether randomized control trials are the optimal approach, rather than building demand for more data-based decision-making; 2) we oversold the availability of evidence-based practices and underestimated what it takes to scale them; and 3) we did all this without ever asking what problems decision-makers are trying to solve.

If we want to gain momentum for evidence-based practice, we need to focus more on figuring out how to implement such approaches on a larger scale, in a way that uses data to improve programs on an ongoing basis….

We must start by understanding and analyzing the problem the decision-maker wants to solve. We need to offer more than lists of evidence-based strategies or interventions. What outcomes do the decision-makers want to achieve? And what do data tell us about why we aren’t getting those outcomes with current methods?…

None of the following ideas is rocket science, nor am I the first person to say them, but they do suggest ways that we can move beyond our current approaches in promoting evidence-based practice.

1. We need better data.

As Michele Jolin pointed out recently, few federal programs have sufficient resources to build or use evidence. There are limited resources for evaluation and other evidence-building activities, which too often are seen as “extras.” Moreover, many programs at the local, state, and national level have minimal information to use for program management and even fewer staff with the skills required to use it effectively…


2. We should attend equally to practices and to the systems in which they sit.

Systems improvements without changes in practice won’t get outcomes, but without systems reforms, evidence-based practices will have difficulty scaling up. …

3. You get what you pay for.

One fear I have is that we don’t actually know whether we can get better outcomes in our public systems without spending more money. And yet cost-savings seem to be what we promise when we sell the idea of evidence-based practice to legislatures and budget directors….

4. We need to hold people accountable for program results and promote ongoing improvement.

There is an inherent tension between using data for accountability and using it for program improvement….(More)”