Building the Evidence Ecosystem with State Data Collaborations

In 2024, MDRC will be celebrating our 50th anniversary, leading me to reflect on how our work has evolved over the years and how it has stayed constant. The specific challenges in social and educational policy we tackle and the solutions we test have changed. The kinds of questions we ask and the methods we employ have evolved to meet the needs of the organizations and participants we work with.

Throughout the decades, though, we’ve stayed committed to our core mission: building trusted bodies of evidence that are useful to both policymakers and practitioners—ultimately, to increase the number of families and individuals with low incomes who can lead the lives that they aspire to.

A recent project supported by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services highlights the power of administrative data to build evidence to improve human services, a policy domain where MDRC has been engaged for most of our history.

Today, many state agencies are interested in analyzing their own administrative data to improve their services by understanding their participants’ dynamics in detail. To that end, MDRC has been helping states build the capacity to merge and analyze welfare and employment data in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Data Innovation project with our partners, Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy, Chapin Hall, and the Coleridge Initiative.

One component of the project was the TANF Data Collaborative pilot initiative in eight states. In the nine-minute video below, staff members from cross-disciplinary teams in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Virginia TANF agencies discuss how their pilots have positioned them to understand their participants’ needs and strengthen their services.

Regardless of the specific questions they investigated, these agencies were building data infrastructure and integrating datasets across systems, learning new data analytic skills, and forging new cross-agency relationships that will endure in their states beyond these initial pilots. MDRC and its partners are expanding the project’s reach with a detailed toolkit for state or local agency staff who want to access, link, and analyze state unemployment insurance data. We’re also working on an upcoming guide on how to sustain data-informed practices.

At MDRC, our dual mission is to build and apply evidence to create change at a national scale. The TANF Data Collaborative is one example of how we work alongside service providers and systems to transform how they can use data to achieve their goals. As we approach our 50th anniversary, we’re inspired by the potential for data science, human-centered design, and other measurement, learning, and evaluation approaches to inform the country’s movement toward less poverty, more equitable outcomes, and greater economic mobility for historically marginalized groups.

While our methods continue to evolve, MDRC’s core commitment remains constant: to engage with policymakers, practitioners, and participants in public and community-based services to build information that makes a difference.

Virginia Knox is the President of MDRC.