Recently, amid the political turmoil over tax reform and other controversial issues, Congress set aside partisan differences to convey an important message to the American public: Better use of evidence in our policymaking process is necessary and possible.
Regardless of their politics, the American people want a government that operates effectively and transparently. The federal government spends billions on programs, yet often lacks the evidence needed to determine whether these programs are working as intended or how they could be improved. Evidence-based policymaking — making better use of data and rigorous program evaluation to inform government decision-making —holds the key to driving government programs to be more effective.
This is why House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray’s introduction of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act — and the quick action by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to report their bill out of committee — are so important. In advancing this legislation, Speaker Ryan and Sen. Murray are fulfilling a commitment to move quickly to implement the recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which we co-chaired and now continue to champion as the co-chairs of the new Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Congress asked the commission to develop recommendations to ensure that evidence is actually used in policymaking. In response, we laid out a clear plan for evidence to be created efficiently as a routine part of government operations and used to construct effective public policy. When implemented, the commission’s recommendations will strengthen privacy protections for the data government collects, improve secure access to those data for evidence-building purposes, and enhance the capacity of government to engage in evidence building.
Our shared goal for evidence-based policymaking is bipartisan, and the commission’s recommendations were endorsed unanimously by all 15 politically appointed commissioners.
Ryan and Murray have taken the first step toward implementing the commission’s plan by developing legislation that directly addresses 10 of our recommendations. The legislation does not tackle everything we recommended, but it’s a tremendous first step.
Currently, significant barriers exist between researchers and the data they need to assess whether government programs are working and how they might be made better. The legislation incorporates several commission recommendations for improving secure data access. It would make it easier for analysts to learn about the data the government already holds and set the expectation that, absent explicit prohibitions, those data should be available for statistical activities and evidence building.
The legislation would act to strengthen privacy protections for confidential government data and to better assess the potential risks of using those data. Creating chief data officers and assigning responsibility to other senior leaders in federal agencies for coordinating data policy and procedures would be a move in the right direction for improving privacy protections, transparency and data access all at the same time.
In short, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act lays out simple but powerful steps toward bringing our government’s data and evidence-building infrastructure into the 21st century.
The Ryan-Murray legislation is a strong start to realizing the vision articulated by the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. We strongly endorse this legislation and encourage Congress to act quickly to pass it so the American public can begin to benefit from the promise of more evidence-based policymaking.
Katharine G. Abraham, professor at the University of Maryland, was appointed by President Barack Obama as chair of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and is now co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative.Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan as co-chair of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and is now co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative.