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College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Collins Institute report highlights evidence-based policymaking

Gary VanLandingham, author of the Collins Institute report

Evidence-based decisionmaking has long been one of the guiding values of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. (See the 2019 issue of Engage magazine dedicated to this topic.) Now, one of the institutes housed within the college has issued a report examining Florida’s current policy and budgeting decisions and the success of evidence-based policymaking in other states.

With projections pointing to a $2 billion state budget shortfall and legislative leaders foreshadowing significant budget cuts, the LeRoy Collins Institute released Better Choices: Evidence-Based Policymaking Can Improve Florida’s Outcomes,” which aims to introduce strategies and techniques to help policymakers target limited resources toward programs that are proven to work and eliminate those that deliver poor results. 

“With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to strain the state’s resources and economy, it is vitally important for Florida to take advantage of these recommended policymaking techniques in order to spend existing resources more strategically,” said Lester Abberger, Board Chair of the LeRoy Collins Institute. “Since Florida is unlikely to raise new revenues to address the state’s economic challenges, the best path forward is to spend what we do have more effectively by implementing evidence-based policymaking techniques.” 

As discussed in earlier Collins Institute “Tougher Choices” reports, Florida faces daunting challenges. As a low-tax/low-service state, Florida trails many other states in key social and economic indicators, including the health and education status of its residents, the rate of child poverty, unemployment, and environmental threats. Despite improvements, the state’s tax revenues continue to grow more slowly than the overall economy, and Florida faces a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Relying on Federal funds is not a long term-solution.

As used in a growing number of states, evidence-based policymaking techniques utilize the best research and data on program results to guide policy and budget decisions.

Key next steps to implementing more evidence-based policymaking in Florida include compiling a comprehensive inventory of current state programs; classifying all programs by their effectiveness; giving funding preference to programs that achieve high returns on investment dollars; creating monitoring standards to assure that programs are implemented with fidelity; and establishing a central database of agency performance measures and issuing agency report cards.

“Our hope is that the techniques outlined in this report will encourage Florida’s leaders to spend the state’s already limited resources on more effective programs to better serve the state’s residents,“ said Carol S. Weissert, Ph.D., Director of the LeRoy Collins Institute. “Strategically allocating Florida’s existing resources will generate positive outcomes and is a step in the right direction to ensure that agency programs are being implemented as intended and producing positive results.”

The report was authored by Dr. Gary VanLandingham, professor, master’s program director, and the Reubin O’D. Askew Senior Practitioner in Residence at the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy. It is being distributed to state policymakers and major Florida publications to encourage leaders to adopt these techniques and establish policies that give priority to funding evidence-based programs. 

“The best path forward is to make better choices using evidence, which can help inform our choices,” VanLandingham told WFSU radio on its Capital Report, February 5. “If we want to do something to reduce crime, what does the research show is the most effective ways of doing that? If we want to deal with educational challenges, let’s use research to guide those choices.”

One example, said VanLandhingham, was the “scared straight” fad in the 1990s. Troubled teens were taken into jails and prisons where they heard tales of terror from inmates who warned the kids to avoid their mistakes. That program was a dismal failure. So the latest Collins Institute report analyzes three Florida state agencies using accepted research that shows what works.

“A ton of evidence has been collected on criminal justice programming and juvenile justice,” he said. “So we looked at the Department of Juvenile Justice. A lot of evidence on what works in child welfare. We looked at where the Department of Children and Families is. And there’s a ton of evidence about works on health, so we looked at whether the Department of Health is following an evidence-based track.”

The results are exhaustive, but VanLandhingham said they can be summed up pretty succinctly: There isn’t state policy to guide evidence use throughout the system as there is in other states.

“We want agencies to come up with an inventory of all their programs and match that against the evidence base so we can see if we’re funding stuff that works or not. And then moving more money over time towards those proven interventions. Setting up good monitoring and technical assistance networks to make sure those programs are done well. And then doing ongoing evaluation to see are there better ideas out there? Let’s test them before we put them statewide, but let’s keep building this evidence base.”

Established in 1988, the LeRoy Collins Institute is a nonpartisan, statewide policy organization housed in the Florida State University College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. The institute studies and promotes creative solutions to key private and public policy issues facing the people of Florida and the nation.