Policy Making in the Time of COVID

Evaluation Lab News

Posted: Oct 09, 2020 - 12:00am

Jon Courtney is on the MPP’s Community Advisory Board and is Deputy Director of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee (LFC). Dr. Courtney’s experience includes working as a data analyst for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory and the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department.  He has been at the LFC for nine years.

Dr. Courtney related a pivotal incident in his career.  He was working on a project at the Air Force Research Laboratory to help soldiers recognize Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).  He told his boss that he needed another 2 weeks to improve the algorithm.  His boss asked him if getting a better algorithm was worth the lives that would be lost because of the delay.  Dr. Courtney was trained as an academic to “get the analysis right,” but in a policy setting, you don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. 

Dr. Courtney and his team promote evidence-based policy making, what the LFC calls “legislating for results.” This is a process to improve performance and ensure accountability through the effective allocation of resources for the benefit of all New Mexicans.  Dr. Courtney and his team review programs to see what is effective and to make sure that these programs are being implemented as intended so that the programs with the best outcomes are the ones that get the funding.

COVID has placed a number of challenges in the way of this process. Most notably, Dr. Courtney and his staff now have a limited ability to conduct field work necessary to their evaluations for budget prep. Another change is that the LFC has had to shift their focus, so they are able to produce Policy Spotlights, these are literally spotlights on policies of best practices around COVID-related issues, such as re-opening, potential learning loss due to online learning, broadband, etc. The LFC is looking at areas that are most pressing for our state right now and flagging potential issues in real time for these agencies.

Because New Mexico is taking a very conservative approach to reopening, our schools are largely all doing remote instruction. New Mexico was already ranked low in the nation for public education outcomes. Because of a high poverty rate and a relatively large proportion of the population living in rural areas, online learning poses many challenges. The LFC estimates that school closures in Spring of 2020 will result in up to a year of learning loss, and teachers are reporting that 1 in 5 kids cannot even be contacted remotely. In response to these challenges, the LFC is working to put together evidence-based programs and practices for remote learning and planning strategies for a safe return to face-to-face instruction using models developed by the Los Alamos National Labs.  The LFC is also are encouraging assessment of the students to inform instruction and most effectively make up for lost learning time.

Overall, for every agency and institution that the LFC works with, the goal is the same: to get them to a place where they are using data to make decisions and plan ahead, and to be proactive, instead of reactive, so they are prepared to handle COVID as well as the next crisis.

And, as parting words for our aspiring policy analysts, Dr. Courtney advised the students: “If you are interested in public policy, the best way is just to get involved, reach out to people and start building your network now, don’t be afraid to ask questions.”