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Essential Elements: Making Connections and Risk for Reward

An eight-petal flower graphic depicting the Colorado Lab's eight essential elements

Celebrating the Fifth Anniversary of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab!

This post is part of our special blog series to mark the fifth anniversary of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab. In each post, we highlight elements that are essential to our work with a broad range of government and community partners. The effectiveness of the work we undertake together is key to advancing systems and policies that strengthen opportunities to meaningfully improve the lives of Coloradans.

The Colorado Lab was established with a fundamental commitment to using data to develop sustained solutions that benefit Coloradans. Our ability to fulfill this rests on a collective commitment of Colorado decision-makers to generate and use research to inform policy and practice change. That commitment is made visible in progress like the 2013 SMART Act (State Measurement for Accountable, Responsive, and Transparent Government), Colorado’s multi-year participation in the Results First Initiative, and most recently, Colorado’s passage of Senate Bill 21-284 (Evidence-Based Evaluations for Budget).

Such investments have created a strong foundation for evidence-based policy and practice. Now, the time is ripe to expand the universe of how evidence can be used to drive smart state decisions and lasting outcomes. In fall 2022, the Colorado Lab released a 5-Year Vision for Advancing Evidence-Based Decision-Making in Colorado Policymaking. The goal is to articulate a commonly-accepted vision for Colorado’s approach to evidence-based decision-making (EBDM) in policymaking and outline a shared framework for achieving this vision.

There is a movement underway nationally to make it the norm for policy decisions to be informed by research evidence. Colorado has an important opportunity to continue leadership in moving toward this goal. This long-term undertaking is both significant in scope and offers the possibility of far-reaching, meaningful rewards. It also provides a good example of two of the Colorado Lab’s essential elements:

  • Making Connections. We are highly engaged with key players across systems, making connections and advancing opportunities to explore new and aligned issue, and
  • Welcoming Risk for Reward. We take on high-risk, high-reward projects that offer the potential to achieve substantial gains and sustained change.

The shared vision and framework for EBDM intentionally crosses branches of government, systems, and issues. It is not program or policy specific, or tied to a specific administration, or fleeting in use. As a result, no one system or branch of government is positioned to take on the work alone. This is where Colorado can benefit from “boundary spanning leadership” to accelerate progress in the EBDM culture. Boundary spanning leaders inspire, align, and coordinate stakeholders across systems in service to a shared vision.

As Colorado’s research and policy lab, we offer unique qualities (see table below) that position us to serve as a boundary spanner to state government. Boundary spanning is an established strategy for breaking down silos to make connections that allow for creative solutions. Across projects, data, funding, and practice, silos persist—both within and across agencies. The Colorado Lab works to make connections in human networks, data systems, resources, and implementation. As we make connections, we center the North Star “why” of our governmental partners. Then, we help partners answer their “why” through a focus on evidence-building for systemic solutions. This is where the Colorado Lab embraces risk for reward. We recognize that sustained solutions that cross and align systems are iterative and a long game. This requires a certain “risk-tolerant” attitude where the decision-making priorities of our partners anchor us and we celebrate both incremental rewards as well as substantial gains.

The Lab is independent and non-partisan:

  • We can withstand changes in administration, agency leadership, and staff. This enables us to serve the system of state government and stay the course on long-game risk-for-reward projects.
  • The Lab is able to hold the shared EBDM vision intact year over year, while allowing each stakeholder to maintain their unique needs within that vision.

The Lab is non-issue specific:

  • We are skilled at making connections across players in different systems to find alignment in opportunity. In the last 5 years, the Lab has partnered with over 50 different agency partners to execute 44 projects, ranging from early childhood to criminal justice to older adults to behavioral health.
  • Within the EBDM Framework, the Lab is able to coordinate evidence-building and evidence use across roles and responsibilities, within branches of government and with non-governmental partners.

The Lab defines success through actionable data that drive sustained solutions:

  • We focus on matching evidence-building approaches to the goals of governmental partners and the communities they serve. This means our deliverables are more than “words on paper”—they must have utility and longevity.
  • The EBDM vision and framework are about culture change. The Lab is able to develop tools, structures, and best practices that meet partners where they are and build capacity for their sustained contributions over time.

The essential elements of making connections and risk for reward are vital drivers of achieving success in work undertaken by the Colorado Lab. As we move from vision to execution in EBDM in policymaking, we embrace the opportunity for large-scale returns that cross systems.

We look forward to engaging with many of you as efforts advance to make Colorado a leader in EBDM in policymaking, and in identifying new opportunities to think big and work together to achieve those dreams.

Next up in our blog series we wrap up our focus on Systems, explaining what it means to conduct research with rigor, and why this matters in building evidence for programs, practices, and policies.

Please tell us if there is an essential element that stands out to you based on the work we’ve done together. Do you have a story to share? Is there something about the Colorado Lab that you would like to learn more about? What are your hopes for the future of Colorado’s policy lab? We would love to hear from you; a celebration is more fun when it’s shared with those we’re making this journey with!