Is evidence-based policymaking driven by Machiavellianism or altruism in US states?

Luke Yingling and Daniel J. Mallinson

We find that the adoption of evidence-based policies in US states is driven more by Machiavellianism than altruism. Although engagement with evidence-based policymaking (EBP) can produce more efficient and effective government, it can also supply new levers of control to politicians and bureaucrats, which can be used to produce electoral benefits. An appeal to EBP can be used to centralise control of executive functions, as well as to manipulate budgets, that incentivise adoption. Further, the construction, purpose and outcomes of these laws are influenced by the institutions, parties and officeholders who craft them. Our study finds that Democratic governors, Republican legislatures and state innovativeness are significant predictors of EBP adoption in the American states. 

The role of institutions, parties and office-holders in EBP adoption
Governors are popularly elected in statewide elections and thus have a natural incentive to appeal to a broad base of voters. When seeking new benefits for their citizens, self-interest and the desire to achieve re-election compels governors to adopt policies which will have broad-based positive impacts. Legislators, however, are elected by districts within a state. Their primary incentive is to deliver benefits for their districts. Thus, legislators have a natural incentive to strive for particularised benefits.

Political parties add another layer of interests to this scenario. Democratic governors receive an electoral boost in years that they grow their state budget. Republican governors, however, are punished by voters for budgetary expansions. Because EBP requires the establishment of data infrastructure, which requires expenditures, Democratic governors stand to benefit more electorally from these initial outlays. Nevertheless, the efficiency and effectiveness benefits derived from EBP can reduce budgets over time, despite initial costs. Thus, EBP allows legislatures to improve bureaucratic functions and potentially reduce budgets without expending significant capital necessary for winning re-election, which is especially critical to more professionalised legislatures. Accordingly, because Republicans perform poorly in elections when their incumbent governments produce budgetary growth, EBP offers longer-term electoral benefits. Therefore, it is the interplay of political and institutional incentives that motivate the adoption of EBP.  

Defining and measuring EBP adoption
Our comprehensive inspection of policy adoption in the American states helps overcome the difficulty of defining and measuring EBP in a political context. Declaring that a policy is evidence-based has a legitimising effect that can help garner support for proposed laws. Thus, many politicians have leveraged the term to generate political capital. Still, the term is vague and its meaning must be clarified to aid measurement. We define evidence-based policies by the features they possess. Some features, such as data collection, are hallmarks of evidence-based policy. These features form a hierarchy (Figure 1) where lower-level aspects form the necessary formation for higher level features, akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We were aided in developing this hierarchy by the work of the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative.

Figure 1: Hierarchy of evidence-based policy features

By measuring the presence or absence of these features, we can gauge the extent to which states have adopted evidence-based policies in distinct policy areas. Our study delves into four policy areas: criminal justice, juvenile justice, behavioural health and child welfare (Figure 2). While some states, such as Utah and Washington, excelled in most policy areas, earning them high cumulative scores, others scored poorly across the spectrum.

Figure 2: Variation in four evidence-based policy areas in the American states

As such, our study has research and practical applications. It helps us understand how institutional incentives shape policymaking and identify states that are ripe for the adoption of EBP.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Yingling, D.L. and Mallinson, D.J. (2020). Explaining variation in evidence-based policy making in the American states. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426419X15752577942927.

Luke Yingling is a law student at West Virginia University College of Law. He holds a Masters in Public Administration and has worked in the public sector during his education in the areas of drug policy, behavioural health and criminal justice.

Daniel Mallinson is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Public Affairs. His research focuses on policy diffusion, pedagogy, and marijuana, energy and environmental policy.

Image credit: Photo by Morgan Lane on Unsplash

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

How much evidence is in evidence-based policymaking: a case study of an expert group of the European Commission [Open Access]

The silver bullet reversed: the impact of evidence on policymaker attention

Understanding, negotiating and navigating the politicisation of evidence-based policy research: the case of Irish research on lone parent labour market activation policy

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