February 1, 2019Policy Report

9 Ways to Make Federal Legislation Evidence-Based: 2019 What Works Guide for Congress

Federal/ 2019/

We know more than ever about what works to improve the lives of children, families, and communities. For example, Year Up increased its graduates’ earnings by 40 percent, CUNY ASAP nearly doubled graduation rates for low-income students, while community leaders in Milwaukee used a collective impact approach to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 65 percent. Their secret? They used data, evidence, and proven tactics to guide their efforts rather than opinion or hunches.

Over the past 10 years, policymakers from both parties have turned to evidence-based solutions to get better results and lower costs. This differs from the far too common approach where elected officials create programs and policies based on anecdote, politics, or well-intentioned ideas that may or may not be backed by data and evidence.

Congress has recently passed bipartisan legislation designed to promote what works by including data and evidence provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Family First Prevention Services Act, Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, Juvenile Justice Reform Act, and the Foundations of Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. Federal agencieshave also begun implementing these laws, as documented in RFA’s 2018 Federal Standard of Excellence.

But what exactly makes legislation evidence-based? And how can Congress strengthen this “What Works” approach when writing future bills?

This brief outlines 9 ways Congress can ensure federal laws are evidence-based and results-driven. U.S. Senators and Representatives should use all 9 strategies whenever possible, though we recognize some of the following proposals are more relevant to some bills than others.