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New governors can create vital policies by following the evidence

AP Photo/Bryan Woolston
Gov. Wes Moore stands on the dais during the ceremonial swearing-in at the state Capitol in Annapolis, Md., on Jan. 18, 2023.

Across the country, nine new governors are taking office. These first few weeks mark a critical window of opportunity to set their policy agenda for the next four years. Regardless of political leaning, new governors have a sure-fire way to strengthen the states they will soon lead: invest in evidence-based policymaking.  

Throughout their election campaigns, each new governor highlighted their policy priorities, from improving educational outcomes to increasing workforce opportunities. As they now step into governing, they must set agendas to achieve these policy goals. In a world with limited resources, this process requires making difficult decisions about which programs to invest in. 

Governors should invest in programs that are most likely to improve the lives of their constituents. However, determining which programs work and which do not is far easier said than done. Not all programs work as intended. For example, the once popular “Drug Abuse Resistance Education” or “D.A.R.E.” programs that aimed to reduce drug use among young adults were ultimately found to be ineffective by multiple studiesMillions of dollars had been invested into scaling the program across the country despite its lack of effectiveness. 

To ensure resources are spent on programs that actually work, new governors should rely on evidence. Evidence from randomized evaluations, in which the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) North America (where I am co-executive director) specializes, can provide particularly clear and actionable answers as to whether a policy works.  

Randomized evaluations, widely used in clinical settings to determine the effectiveness of new drugs or medical treatments, are considered one of the most rigorous research methods to measure whether a policy achieves its intended goals. Sorting a population into two groups — one that receives a program and one that does not — via random assignment ensures that at the beginning of the study, groups will be the same on average. Thus, any difference in outcomes at the end of the study between groups can be attributed to the program itself rather than other causes. 

Randomized evaluations have helped us identify key programs proven to address some of our biggest current challenges, from learning loss to violent crime. For example, sectoral employment training programs can help low-income workers obtain higher-paying jobs in in-demand industries. Summer jobs programs were found to reduce young people’s involvement in violent crime. And high-dosage tutoring is shown to help low-income students catch up in school and improve test scores.  

States can act upon this evidence by investing in and scaling up these programs. By doing so, they can advance equity and improve the lives of their constituents. For example, based on the evidence on tutoring, California’s Assembly Bill 86 included $460 million dedicated to hiring paraprofessional tutors. This bill has the potential to benefit California’s six million public school students.  

In addition to investing in tested solutions, governors have the platform to launch innovative new programs. The American Rescue Plan’s  $195.3 billion allocation to state governments provides an opportunity for governors to reinvent how governments serve their communities while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and advancing economic mobility and racial equity. 

However, while many new programs are promising, there is often limited rigorous evidence on their impact. In order to know whether these programs work as intended, it is important to first pilot and rigorously evaluate them. This important step ensures the programs are having their intended impact before they are scaled up, reducing government waste. Therefore, over the next four years, governors should earmark a percentage of resources toward evaluation and evidence generation, in line with guidance from the U.S. Treasury. Simultaneously, governors should bolster their state’s data infrastructure and increase the capacity to interpret and utilize data. By investing in these key areas, governors can pave the way for continued learning and data-driven policymaking in their state.  

In some states, resources are already being allocated toward rigorous ongoing research. For example, Minnesota is working to evaluate programs across a variety of areas, from addressing the opioid epidemic to bolstering COVID-19 testing. While these efforts require dedicated time, energy and external support, it allows the state to understand how best to tackle increasingly complex social issues.  

The beginning of a governor’s term marks a prime opportunity to make investments in evidence-based policymaking. External supports, such as outside advisors and resources, can provide guidance and aid during this busy time. To best leverage this support, governors and their teams should reach out to academic researchers and research organizations for advice on what the evidence says about effective policies.  

Such organizations can offer various assistance for state and local governments looking to invest in evidence and evaluation. Governors can also consult clearinghouses of evidence, such as Results For America’s Economic Mobility Catalog and work with experts to plan for rigorous evaluation within policy agendas, staffing plans, and budgets. 

By following the evidence and investing in continuous learning, new governors will have a roadmap for how to effectively bolster the communities they serve. 

Vincent Quan is a co-executive director of J-PALNorthAmerica, a regional office of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Email:

Tags American Rescue Plan governors policymaking Politics of the United States Public policy Scientific Integrity in Policymaking

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