Five Strategies for Advancing to the Next Generation of Evidence

By Tamar Bauer and Kelly Fitzsimmons
November 13, 2020

As we approach the end of a tumultuous year and look toward a new year and a new administration, we believe a next generation of evidence – a data and evidence ecosystem that is more equitable and actionable – will allow us to build back stronger. Despite progress made under both the Bush and Obama administrations to promote the use of evidence, practitioners, communities, funders, and policymakers are not systematically generating and using the evidence necessary to better serve disadvantaged communities. 

To advance to this new generation of evidence, we see several opportunities for the Biden administration, along with practitioners, funders, and researchers, to improve our collective approach: we must place practitioners at the center of evidence building, embrace an R&D approach, adopt broader definitions of evidence, increase funding for critical evidence capacity, and address equity with evidence.

1. Put Practitioners at the Center of Evidence Building 

To achieve better, faster, and more equitable outcomes for communities, we must put the problems and realities of practitioners – those providing and producing evidence on programs and services – at the center of research. Traditional research too often does not account for the context in which practitioners operate, instead prioritizing the questions and methodologies of researchers and funders. Practitioners therefore lose input into and ownership of the very evidence agendas they are accountable for executing, without the ability to test and learn on their own terms. They become the caboose of the evidence train, when they need to be the engine. 

By driving their own evidence agendas, practitioners are better able to optimize operations, improve programming, and adapt to evolving goals and contexts. For example, Year Up, which provides Black, Latinx and other disadvantaged young adults with skills, experiences, and support to reach their potential through professional careers and education, is a heavy user of internal monitoring and evaluation approaches. It has also continually worked with external evaluators to expand the range of evidence available to support its efforts to refine and scale programming. Grounding its evidence-building efforts in questions important to the team and developing strong feedback loops to incorporate evaluation learnings into program operations has allowed Year Up to build more actionable and useful evidence in service of better outcomes for its program participants.

“By driving their own evidence agendas, practitioners are better able to optimize operations, improve programming, and adapt to evolving goals and contexts.”

To equip and empower other organizations to take this approach, Project Evident partnered with practitioners to develop the Strategic Evidence Plan (SEP) – a roadmap for continuous evidence building that goes beyond the one-study-at-a-time approach and advances actionable, practical knowledge needed to build and scale solutions. As Project Evident’s Founder and Managing Director Kelly Fitzsimmons recently laid out, SEPs can also be vital tools to support evidence-based policymaking across government agencies, and can help ensure that the evidence goals of federal agencies reflect the needs of their various communities and stakeholders.

2. Embrace an R&D Approach 

In order to spur innovation and continuous improvement in the social and education sectors, a disciplined process for learning, testing, and improving – an ‘R&D approach’ – must become standard and supported practice. The data and evidence capacity of the social and education sectors is woefully underdeveloped when compared to its academic, research, or for-profit counterparts. As Jon Baron recently explained on our site, “If our country hopes to make progress on important social problems, it is essential for practitioners to engage in a disciplined evidence-building process…It is also important for government and philanthropic funders of social programs to incentivize and assist the practitioners they fund to engage in such evidence-building activities.” 

Policymakers and funders need to support and promote practitioners’ learning, implementation, and organizational development in addition to research studies. We should incentivize evaluators, researchers, and other impact intermediaries to partner with practitioners 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. And in order to truly improve, we need to make room for risk, failure, and adjustment. 

Organizations at all stages of development can benefit from adopting an R&D approach. For Prosecutor Impact, which works to reduce disparities in our criminal justice system by providing prosecutors with tools and resources to fairly and effectively represent their communities, it has been important to have a process for learning, testing, and improving since its founding in 2016. By focusing on how data could help answer fundamental questions from the beginning, Prosecutor Impact has been able to identify the services that are a critical pathway to its targeted outcomes, with processes to support ongoing learning baked in from day one. For Nurse-Family Partnership, which provides support to new, low-income mothers beginning in pregnancy, R&D has become part of the organization’s DNA over the course of decades – pairing continuous, practitioner-led evidence building with multiple rigorous external evaluations in order to improve and scale its programs. The Tennessee Department of Education’s work to improve reading proficiency in the state is another example of an R&D approach, emphasizing the importance of internal evidence capacity in addition to external evaluation, focusing on continuous evidence building and iteration, and understanding that negative results present opportunities for improvement.  

3. Adopt Broader Definitions of Evidence 

To build an evidence ecosystem that is more timely and cost-effective, we should broaden how we define evidence. We have relied too heavily on frameworks and definitions that are overly narrow and don’t promote continuous evidence building, but rather contribute to a “thumbs up or thumbs down” or “one and done” mentality. We have falsely equated rigor with RCTs alone, and paid too little attention to the equally important evidence building at the earlier stages. And we generate evidence that is not always relevant, timely, or financially viable. 

“Instead, we should be more willing to leverage readily accessible forms of data, with rigor tailored to practitioner questions and realities, and factoring in considerations of implementation context, data quality, and systemic drivers of inequities.”

As one example, the tiered evidence framework in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) creates a number of issues for schools, including prioritizing methods like RCTs over practical application and opportunities for students, an overemphasis on statistical significance, and an inadequate consideration of cost. This narrow view ultimately constrains our opportunities to figure out what works for students. 

Instead, we should be more willing to leverage readily accessible forms of data, with rigor tailored to practitioner questions and realities, and factoring in considerations of implementation context, data quality, and systemic drivers of inequities. A more balanced ratio of summative evaluations to practitioner-led strategic evidence building can help spur innovation and real-time evidence that is urgently needed as organizations figure out how best to serve the needs of their communities during and after the pandemic.

4. Increase Funding for Critical Evidence Capacity

The next generation of public and private funding will be critical to improve evidence building and use. Funders often ask for evidence of outcomes but often do not understand – or pay for – the capacity necessary for that work. A recent report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy points out that while funder attitudes towards supporting the type of flexible operating support necessary to building evidence capacity have shifted, funding practices have not. 

In addition to increasing the amount of funding for evidence capacity, we need to shift the predominant focus of evaluation from accountability to learning – a sentiment we hear from both practitioners and researchers.This means balancing existing support for compliance studies and point-in-time impact evaluation with increased investment in practitioner-centric evidence building that focuses on learning and continuous improvement. For public funders, policymakers should build on the 2018 Evidence Act by broadening the list of evidence building activities allowable under federal grants, as Project Evident and a coalition of nonprofit and government leaders have recommended. For private funders, a number of philanthropic organizations are leading efforts to increase this type of flexible, capacity-focused support, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the T. Rowe Price Foundation – an encouraging trend we hope to see continue.

5. Address Equity with Evidence

Data and evidence are powerful tools for advancing equitable outcomes. Data can shine a light on communities that are often overlooked or neglected. However, like most systems in our country, the current evidence ecosystem is not equitable. Organizations and practitioners that serve marginalized communities are not empowered or equipped to build and drive their evidence agenda, deciding what type of learning questions to pursue and when. And tensions between the power of evidence and its dangers persist, especially in communities that have been historically exploited – from the infamous Tuskegee Study, where Black men were used to study the effects of syphilis without their knowledge, to more recent programs that use school suspension data to predict risk of future involvement with the justice system, exacerbating the inequities that exist for Black students from an early age. We need to address the risks from both “deadly data” and “do-good data,” as noted recently by Dr. Ruja Benjamin at Data 4 Public Good

“It also requires that leaders systematically incorporate the voices of Black and Brown staff and community members throughout the evidence-building process.”

A more equitable ecosystem is necessary to increase the supply of solutions that reduce racial disparities. As Senior Evidence Advisor Farhana Hossain has written, this requires equipping practitioners to devise and test solutions informed by the needs of Black and Brown communities, and building a stronger pipeline of Black and Brown leaders who can leverage their lived experiences to strengthen the evidence base of social programs. It also requires that leaders systematically incorporate the voices of Black and Brown staff and community members throughout the evidence-building process, including decisions about what questions to ask, what outcomes to measure, how to collect and analyze data, and how to interpret evidence. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently described its approach to collecting and understanding demographic data that focuses on advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion. At Project Evident, we developed a Data & Evidence Equity Guide to provide leaders with a framework to ensure their data systems and processes are reflective of the voices and needs of the communities they serve. 

The Biden administration and our country face major challenges in “building back better,” including recovery from the ongoing pandemic, improving racial equity, and confronting climate change – all in a highly polarized political environment. Advancing a more equitable and actionable evidence ecosystem is an opportunity to find common ground in an increasingly divided United States, building on bipartisan progress to date while also supporting a new generation of more inclusive leadership. This will allow practitioners and policymakers to understand the needs of underserved communities and to test, improve, and scale solutions that deliver stronger, more equitable outcomes for all Americans.

Kelly Fitzsimmons is the Founder & Managing Director of Project Evident; Tamar Bauer is an Entrepreneur in Residence and leads Project Evident’s Next Generation of Evidence Campaign.