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Using Evidence to Inform Policy

Understanding how to increase the use of research in funding decisions

This was a joint project between the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Management and Budget. 

In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on evidence-based practices, data-driven management, and evidence-based policymaking in public management. Both the general public and government officials are pushing for better use of evidence by state leaders and staff.1 Employing rigorous causal evidence during decision-making can help leaders understand “what works”, impacting the allocation of billions of dollars annually and improving thousands of lives. 

In order to better understand how state leaders and staff use and interpret research, this analysis used qualitative interviews and an online survey of policymakers in the executive branches of three U.S. states– one each from the Midwest, Southeast, and Mountain West. In this report, we share how state leaders and staff understand different types of evidence and systematic barriers they encounter when attempting to enhance the use of scientific evidence. Notably, we find: 

  • More than half of the 323 survey respondents (54%) said that evidence-based practices (EBP) are helping their agencies with budget, policy, and contracting decision-making. About two thirds (68%) said that EBP will help with these activities in the future. 
  • All else equal, state-level policymakers were 22% more likely to support a program with an "evidence-based" label than one without this designation. Absent this label, policymakers did not show a preference for any types of research methods employed. 

When presented with a hypothetical program to fund based on randomly assigned research characteristics, holding all else constant, state-level policymakers demonstrated a preference for programs that met the following criteria: 

  1. Research methods that identify causality and outcomes over research that reports outputs (such as the number of people served or achieving an outcome). 
  2. Research that shows program effectiveness not only for the average participant but also some or multiple demographic groups. 
  3. Research produced by independent state government research teams, universities, and national think tanks. 
  4. Research that is recent and generated from within their state. Respondents said that lack of time for rigorous evaluations (59%), lack of resources for beginning/sustaining efforts (46%), fragmentation of decision-making (46%), and research evidence not being inclusive of certain communities (44%) had a significant or major impact on their ability to implement EBPs in their agencies. 

In the near term, this report points to how proponents of evidence-based practices can present information to increase the likelihood that programs with rigorous evidence are supported. Over the longer-term, we hope these findings provide information to State leaders, their staff, researchers, and supporting partners so that they can reflect on it to improve their use of evidence in the decision-making process.

Final Report

Digital Conservancy

Project Status: 


Project Lead: 

Dr. Weston Merrick

Evaluation Priority Area: 

User Experience

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