Evidence-based practices are quickly becoming an industry standard in the public realm.  Of all U.S. state and federal public laws referencing “evidence-based’” policies, 46 percent have been passed in the last five years. From the Department of Defense to the Department of Education, the dialog is shifting to strengthen, promote and integrate evidence-based systems into policy and program decisions.

Strengthening Evidence-Based Practices

According to the Pew Trust, evidence-based policymaking is “the systematic use of findings from program evaluations and outcome analyses to guide government policy and funding decisions.”

Evidence-based practices are the next step in a decades-long shift towards greater accountability, ensuring not only positive returns on investments but also beneficial and effective policies. Federal legislation has historically called for programs to be centered around research. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) previously promoted “scientifically-based research” to guide policy.  Under current education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires “evidence-based interventions” that are categorized into criteria levels, or tiers, of evidence-based qualifiers.  ESSA’s requirement is well established: many policies require a reference to evidence-based tiered criteria, though the number of tiers vary by policy.  

Figure 1 shows a tiered-evidence grant model from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that supports awarding larger grants to programs that earn stronger evidence ratings.

Promoting Evidence-Based Policy

Research continues to reinforce the fact that governments can improve fiscal health, expand innovative programs and strengthen accountability through evidence-based policy. According to a 2017 GAO report, over half of all states awarded additional points to grant applicants based on evidence-based practices for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, authorized under (ESSA).

While the policy climate is shifting to increase evidence-based requirements, guides such as one offered by Pew encourage providing information to policymakers on “a regular basis, in easy-to-digest formats that highlight key findings and readily translate to budget and policy decision-making.” Some philanthropic organizations and universities also offer low-cost program evaluation and analysis services to help programs gain an evidence-based designation.

Integrating Evidence-Based Systems

In addition to current legislation, evidence-based language is included in several pieces of proposed state and federal legislation. For example, S. 3120 Helping to End Addiction and Lessen (HEAL) Substance Use Disorders Act of 2018, recently passed out of the Senate Finance Committee, put evidence-based requirements as prerequisites to funding many services and programs. Moreover, half of the funds must be allotted to programs that qualify for the strongest evidence tier.

Several statutes at both the federal and state level include requirements to maintain public clearinghouses; repositories of pre-approved programs and services eligible for related grants and other funds.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is currently evaluating decisions related to the development of a national clearinghouse of practices and criteria used for designating programs into evidence-based tiers under the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018. HHS has requested public comments on the issue through July 22, 2018.

Ultimately, policy conversations about evidence-based requirements are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. As requirements for grants are shifting to favor evidence-based policies and programs at the federal, state and local levels, organizations should be prepared to shift their practices and programs to align with the strongest tiers to remain competitive.


  1. The author performed a LexisNexis search of the total number U.S. federal and state laws containing the term “evidence-based” in 2013 and 2018. The search, performed on July 5, 2018, returned 1335 and 2912 statutes and legislation in 2013 and 2018, respectively.