A Stronger Evidence Ecosystem is Vital for a More Equitable Recovery After the Pandemic

By Farhana Hossain, Tamar Bauer, and Sara Peters
April 2, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed our world in a matter of weeks, and its effects on our communities, institutions, and systems will be felt long after the public health crisis subsides. In a recent editorial,  Nick Hart of the Data Foundation and Dr. Nancy Potok, who served on the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making, highlighted the need for the United States to invest in evidence building to measure the effects of the pandemic and to evaluate the success of our policy interventions. The authors argue that “using data must be a key component of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and also a core feature of future planning to ensure the policies implemented today are sound and achieve the desired outcomes for the American people.” We, at Project Evident, couldn’t agree more.

The steps outlined in the article — investing in the implementation of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, improving data sharing infrastructure among government agencies and expanding access to income and earnings, among others — are crucial to shape and evaluate our national response to this crisis. We would also argue that similar investments are necessary to increase the capacity of state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations to use data for innovation and continuous improvement, and to build evidence for effective solutions that produce measurable outcomes.

Current Barriers to Evidence and Innovation

State and local agencies support public schools and administer safety net programs; they also rely heavily on nonprofit providers to deliver a range of critical services, from homeless shelters to childcare to education and job training. The work that they do is crucial to getting people back on their feet, and they need increased support to use data and generate evidence to inform their decision-making. But there are several key barriers:

  • The capacity for evidence building and continuous improvement among education, health and other social sector organizations is typically low, with rudimentary data infrastructure and limited dollars for talent acquisition and development at most organizations. Government and philanthropic funders rarely help practitioners build core capacity for data collection, evidence building and continuous improvement. In fact, most typically do not cover the full cost of contracted services and often impose artificial caps that seek to minimize non-program spending or restrict spending flexibility. Data collection and reporting requirements are often centered around compliance, and do not incentivize R&D or learning. 
  • Evaluations of social programs are periodic studies that are outsourced to third-party researchers that do not leave practitioners with a sustained capacity for evidence building and improvement. Most of the funding in this space is geared towards evaluations that focus on the impacts of fully developed and complex program models to inform decisions about adoption and funding, but they often do not answer questions that practitioners and administrators have about the most effective ways to implement programs for stronger outcomes.
  • Practitioners lack access to intermediate- and long-term outcomes data available through administrative records (such as employment, earnings, college completion, criminal justice involvement, etc.). They collect a great deal of data on their clients to inform service decisions and to track outputs for contractual requirements, but regulatory constraints and misaligned incentives limit data sharing and integration for assessments of outcomes. As a result, our collective ability to build evidence for what works is slower and more expensive than necessary.

What Can we Do to Strengthen the Supply of Evidence-Based Solutions

Over the past year, Project Evident has advocated for what we call the Next Generation of Evidence — an evidence ecosystem that:

  • Empowers organizations and practitioners that serve our communities to develop their own, more relevant evidence plans ; 
  • Accelerates investments in R&D infrastructure and practices in the education and social sector; and
  • Elevates the voices of communities by giving them the power to shape and participate in the evidence building process.

In light of the pandemic, we see a greater need to accelerate our efforts towards these goals, along with collective action in the field to advance the evidence base of solutions that produce outcomes.

  • Government, philanthropy, and other private funders can invest in the strategic planning and infrastructure — tools, technology, talent and culture — that practitioners need to generate and use evidence as a core part of their operations. A more balanced ratio of summative evaluations to practitioner-led strategic evidence building can help spur innovation and real-time evidence that will be needed in the short run as organizations figure out how best to serve the needs of their communities in the aftermath of the pandemic.
    • Philanthropy can support the administrative costs associated with building the infrastructure and practices for continuous R&D and learning into core operations of social sector organizations. 
    • For the government, costs associated with planning and building evidence and evaluation of outcomes should be included as allowable and direct costs in public grants. In fact, the White House Office of Management and Budget recently proposed clarifying that evaluations are allowable, direct costs in the existing Guidance for Grants and Agreement. Project Evident partnered with a coalition of nonprofit organizations, current and former executives from federal, state and local government, and other leaders to recommend broadening that to include performance improvement and evidence building activities as either a direct or indirect program cost.
  • Policymakers can work towards standardizing administrative data access for providers at the state and local levels by establishing norms and protocols for secure, responsible and equitable data sharing among service providers, state and local agencies, and any third-party research partners. Policymakers can also ensure that providers that participate in publicly funded evaluations with research partners have access to data that is relevant to their improvement efforts, and when appropriate, such data can be made available to advance the field. (Results for America: “Unleashing the Power of Administrative Data: A Guide for Federal, State, and Local Policymakers”)
  • Evaluators, researchers and other impact intermediaries can partner with practitioners in supporting program adaptation and improvements to generate evidence that is relevant and cost-effective, rather than simply serving as independent auditors of overall program impact. Working side-by-side with practitioners, they can support organizations to figure out what they need to know in order to better understand who they are serving, how well they are serving them, and what impact they are having. (Project Evident: Empowering Practitioners to Drive the Evidence Train)
  • Practitioners can use data collected by their organizations and evidence from the field to shape and adapt their work to meet the emerging needs of their communities. It’s also more important than ever for education and social sector leaders to systematically engage their frontline staff, partners and program beneficiaries to ensure that their services and products reflect community needs, and that adaptations and innovations are producing desired results. (Project Evident: The Role of the Practitioner in the Next Generation of Evidence)

The crisis has put a stark spotlight on the inequities in health, housing, education, and economic safety in our society, which will continue to grow in the absence of effective solutions with demonstrable evidence of outcomes. This was our challenge before COVID-19, and it is even more pressing now. It has also revealed the importance of strong data and evidence in responding to social needs and developing solutions to human suffering at scale. We can learn important lessons from existing research and evidence to chart a path forward, but we also need to improve the way evidence is currently generated to encourage innovation for better results for our communities.

Farhana Hossain is a Senior Evidence Advisor; Tamar Bauer is an Entrepreneur in Residence; and Sara Peters is the Managing Director for Policy and Evidence-Based Funding at Project Evident.