Across the United States, state and local governments are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and related health and economic crises, the ongoing climate crisis, and a reckoning with the important work that remains to be done in achieving racial equity and justice. In particular, these ongoing events have exacerbated and highlighted existing disparities across health, labor, housing, and education, and have disproportionately impacted low-income individuals and communities of color.
This past fall, the J-PAL North America State and Local Innovation Initiative hosted a series of webinars to discuss how state and local governments can use lessons from randomized evaluations to address these timely policy challenges. It is critical that we prioritize evaluations on the areas discussed in the webinars: climate change, racial equity, and responses to crises like the Covid-19 pandemic that destabilize the economic lives of communities of color and those already experiencing poverty.
The State and Local Innovation Initiative seeks to take action on the conversations from the webinar series through the launch of the fifth round of its Innovation Competition. Through this competition, state and local policymakers can apply for technical assistance, funding, and connections with researchers in the J-PAL network to develop and implement a randomized evaluation.
As state and local leaders consider opportunities for randomized evaluation, we reflect on three common takeaways from the webinar series that can help inform the identification of research questions to address pressing policy issues.
Evaluations should be developed with communities
Many of the webinar speakers discussed the importance of working with communities throughout the evaluation design and research processes. Panelists discussed a range of strategies for community collaboration, including: the creation of community committees to make decisions alongside researchers, conducting research interviews in businesses frequented by locals, and incorporating community input in deciding how data and results will be disseminated and ultimately, implemented into policy. Panelists also emphasized the importance of transparency between researchers and community stakeholders throughout every phase of research in order to be effective in collecting data and answering the research question at hand.
Data is key in identifying and answering pressing policy questions
Data is a powerful tool that can be utilized to identify policy areas that could benefit from an evaluation. There is an urgent need to move beyond identifying general policy problems, particularly in areas like climate change and racial equity, and use data to identify specific problems and determine potential interventions. State and local governments often collect administrative data that may allude to root causes of specific social issues and may guide action in policymaking to address these issues. However, this data is largely under-utilized. When identifying potential opportunities for evaluation in applying to the State and Local Innovation Competition, it is important to consider the administrative data that is available and what story it tells. Governments can identify what long-term outcomes an intervention is seeking to achieve and think through how administrative data can help inform them. Additionally, policymakers can prioritize the collection of additional qualitative and quantitative data to better understand the full picture of policy problems and outcomes. Ultimately, state and local governments can work to link administrative data sets across state agencies to allow policymakers to better understand how specific programs and policies affect peoples’ lives comprehensively.
Research questions should be addressed holistically
Many of the evaluations presented in the webinar series address an amalgamation of multiple social issues. While research questions or policy priorities may be specific to a certain policy or program, webinar panelists emphasized the importance of considering how these priorities could impact other systems or policies. For example, in a study examining strategies to increase the take-up of preventative health care services for Black men, researchers evaluated the intersection of diversity of medical professionals and actual use of health care, aiming to find solutions to multiple, interlocking policy challenges. Evaluation presents an opportunity to look beyond the specific problem a program is seeking to address and to examine the impact of the program on other outcomes as part of the broader set of priorities for a state or local government.
With these takeaways in mind, J-PAL North America hopes to assist state and local governments in developing evaluations. Policymakers interested in using rigorous impact evaluations to answer policy questions are encouraged to submit an application by April 30. J-PAL North America is excited to partner with state and local governments to develop and implement randomized evaluations on these, and other, policy-relevant research questions.