Results First: Using Evidence to Achieve Policy Results

  • August 13, 2018
  • by Demetra Aposporos

The Results First Initiative, a partnership between the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Pew, helps state and local governments assess their programs—and spend taxpayer dollars more wisely.

Pew Project: Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative

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Like many states, Colorado offers programs that help prepare at-risk children to do well in school. Two home visitation programs targeting preschoolers, Healthy Steps and Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, have operated since the 1990s, aiming to identify and address developmental issues and provide parents with tools—from activities they can do with their kids to new educational resources—to prime their children for success in school and life.

Although parents had long raved about the difference these programs made for their families, state policymakers sought tangible proof of the benefits and wanted to know whether they also resulted in other types of payoffs down the road. For example, could they help avoid some future public assistance and prison costs? Did the programs inspire kids to stay in school until graduation and help increase their potential earnings? To find out, in 2014 the state conducted a sophisticated cost-benefit computer analysis on the programs. It was designed to assess how effectively state programs are working, and where they are expected to pay dividends. Colorado discovered that it was generating a significant return on its investment: Healthy Steps was delivering $2.60 in future savings for every dollar spent, and Home Instruction for Parents was producing $6.10.

The analysis was undertaken through the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, which has worked with Colorado and numerous other states since the program’s 2011 launch. Created through a partnership between the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Pew, Results First unites the two organizations’ shared goal of helping state and local governments better serve citizens. The project introduces evidence and outcomes into the social policy debate, helping to focus attention on programs that have been proved to work well and identifying those that may be losing money, with the goal of helping policymakers deliver needed services in a fiscally responsible way.

After just seven years, the approach is being embraced by policymakers across the country. Results First initially targeted state policy, hoping to eventually work with 25 states. It has exceeded that goal, having worked with 27. And for the past four years, the program has also branched out to work with counties, beginning in California.

“Evidence-based decision-making has gained traction. Many states and counties are using it to make budget, staffing, and structural decisions; it is changing the way they do their work,” says Valerie Chang, managing director of programs at MacArthur.

The hope is that this data-grounded approach not only will improve programs but also will instill public confidence in policymaking and help to strengthen democracy. “Results First aligned with both organizations’ interest in a well-functioning public sector and in using evidence to support better decision-making around fiscal choices,” she says.

Washington state has long been a leader with this approach, attracting Pew and MacArthur’s attention a decade ago. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy developed a model to pinpoint—in dollars and cents terms—the costs and benefits of specific policy options, which led to an evidence-based method for policymaking in the state, fostered bipartisanship, and saved taxpayers more than a billion dollars. Pew and MacArthur worked with the institute to adapt its cost-benefit model and then developed the Results First three-step approach to evidence-based policymaking as a tool for working with other states.

Another tool that Results First has developed is the Clearinghouse Database, a repository of programmatic research that allows policymakers to search by topic—such as child welfare or social policy—to discover quickly the effectiveness of specific programs as rated by eight national clearinghouses. The database can serve as a point of comparison and a model for creating programs that pay off.

After the passage of California’s landmark Public Safety Realignment Act, which shifted responsibility for the management and care of thousands of incarcerated individuals from state to local control, Results First began working with four California counties—Fresno, Kern, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. The project assisted the counties in cataloging programs, assessing their effectiveness, and comparing current and alternative options based on their expected returns and their impact on key outcomes such as a reduction in recidivism, helping officials determine where to best infuse dollars for the greatest impact.

“The county expansion started in 2013. We had to make some modifications to see if a state-based initiative could work in counties, and it did. In many cases, it’s actually been a more streamlined process for county leaders to take the results generated and take action on the most effective programs, since they tend to be closer to the decision-making process than states,” says Pew’s Sara Dube, who directs Results First.

The nation’s 3,007 counties invest more than $550 billion annually to deliver essential front-line services such as health care and police protection to communities. But they often have fewer staff members and resources than states to evaluate and examine the research on the programs they fund. Results First has now worked with 10 counties—from Salt Lake County, Utah, where it helped identify what more could be done about problem behaviors in youth, to Montgomery County, Maryland, where it provided a systemic look at the long-term benefits of mentoring youth.

Included in that tally is Cook County, Illinois, the second-most populous county in the nation and home to MacArthur’s headquarters in Chicago, where Results First has helped to inventory programs so that the county’s Justice Advisory Council can better understand the value of investing in evidence-based programming. The council now plans to seek evidence-based criteria in upcoming requests for proposals.

More counties may be on the horizon as well. Results First is partnering with the California State Association of Counties to train county staff on evidence-based approaches. Additionally, it is working with the National Association of Counties to co-write a report about evidence-based policymaking tailored to counties.

Results First builds on an enduring relationship between MacArthur and Pew, which have long shared common values and which both recently observed milestones as well, with MacArthur celebrating its 40th anniversary and Pew its 70th. When Pew made the change from private foundation to public charity, the collaboration with its former foundation colleagues continued, none more so than with the MacArthur Foundation.

Since 1990, the two organizations have worked on initiatives to improve the administration of elections; end illegal fishing, which is affecting fish stocks around the globe; assess how much states were spending on health care for their employees; and explore how families are supporting aging populations in the U.S., Germany, and Italy, among others.

“The MacArthur Foundation has been a tremendous partner, resulting in terrific collaborations that, like Results First, have improved the delivery of services and made a real fiscal difference in the states,” says Susan K. Urahn, Pew’s executive vice president and chief program officer. “We look forward to our continued work with them in the future.”

In Chang’s assessment, Results First has achieved many of its goals, not least of which was instilling evidence-based policymaking as a bedrock approach for state and local governments. “There has been a fondness for talking about evidence-based policymaking,” she says. “The fact that you actually have these jurisdictions making a commitment and putting funds into it wherever the effort lives—government offices, legislative offices, county offices—shows that there are many ways that states and counties are making this approach a key part of how they make decisions when budgeting. And Pew’s deep engagement in states and expertise with fiscal work made it the perfect partner for this project.”

For information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew, please contact Senior Vice President Sally O’Brien at 202-540-6525 or at