It’s no secret that the government collects a trove of data from the American people – estimated to cost $140 billion each year. But the value of that information is much higher, if it can be successfully and securely applied to make decisions about policies that improve lives and the economy.
Four years ago, the 15-member U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking issued its final report to Congress and the President. Since then, while the world has changed drastically, the vision from the Evidence Commission is more relevant than ever: to enable the use of data in our society to solve real problems for the American people.
The Evidence Commission accomplished its mission with just 18-months to learn about the nature of the country’s data challenges, study the contours of potential solutions, and reach a bipartisan agreement on salient, timely recommendations. It is already a major success story to be emulated by future government commissions, and the impact is still ongoing.
During a press conference on Sept. 7, 2017 releasing the final Evidence Commission recommendations, then-Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray stood side-by-side to applaud the realistic, practical solutions offered by the commission members. Speaker Ryan said: “it’s time to agree where we agree.” And in that spirit, days later, Speaker Ryan and Sen. Murray jointly filed the monumental Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act).
Enacted 16-months after the commission’s report with overwhelmingly bipartisan support in Congress, the Evidence Act was the most significant government-wide reform to the national data infrastructure in a generation. The Evidence Act created chief data officers and evaluation officers in federal agencies, established processes for planning data priorities and research needs, required government data to be open by default, and enabled new data sharing capabilities within one of the world’s strongest privacy-protective frameworks. In short, the legal authority of the Evidence Act was a game changer for how our government responsibly manages and uses data. The work to implement that law is now ongoing across federal agencies.
The Evidence Act also has tremendous implications for state and local governments, federal grantees, researchers, and even allies on the international stage. The law positions the United States as a clear leader in the dialogue about producing useful evidence for decision-making, while also shifting the discourse about the role of data infrastructure in supporting basic program administration.
What’s possible today that was not four years ago? A lot. Take for example the recent efforts to improve talent in the federal government by aligning roles under the chief data officers and evaluation community. Agencies like the US Department of Agriculture are launching new enterprise data capabilities to understand what data they have and use it. Coordination across new data leaders is producing new innovations for the government, like the use of natural language processing to accelerate the review of comments on federal rules. Real dialogue is now underway to break down the barriers and silos of data within agencies, and promote more public access. A new portal for researchers to have a one-stop-shop for applying to access restricted data is under development. New pilot projects of privacy-preserving technologies are underway as public-private partnerships. All of these activities will lead to greater capacity to use data and, therefore, better information to solve the government’s most wicked problems.
While real progress is being made, there are other areas ripe for attention from leaders at the White House where implementation of the Evidence Act has lagged. Here are two examples:
- Presumption of Accessibility Regulation — A key recommendation from the Evidence Commission included in the new law was to assume that data are sharable unless prohibited by law or regulation. This presumption of accessibility requires the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to first take a regulatory action, which has disappointingly not yet even been published in a draft form for public feedback.
- Guidance on New Open Data Requirements – The Evidence Act’s requirement that agencies make more data accessible and open is also paired with new transparency requirements about agencies inventorying data and publishing information about key contents of datasets. These nuanced activities require OMB to also issue guidance to agencies to facilitate consistency across federal agencies as well as prioritizing which high-value data should be made first.
The Evidence Act was a starting point, but there is still yet more work underway to implement the Evidence Commission’s recommendations. Earlier this year, Rep. Don Beyer filed the National Secure Data Service Act as a strategy to take many of the commission’s remaining recommendations for a new infrastructure capable of securely combining data, creating a pathway for implementation. That bill quickly passed the U.S. House with strong bipartisan support and is now awaiting further action in the Senate. In parallel, the new Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building continues to study the challenges identified by the commission and is devising recommendations that will also further address the Evidence Commission’s work.
While much progress has been made based on the commission’s advice, there is still a long path ahead in the United States to implement effectively and ensure the remaining recommendations come to fruition. Importantly, the Evidence Commission is itself an example for how to develop and use evidence in policy making. Fortunately, because of the commission members’ diligent service to the country and the leadership from Speaker Ryan, Sen. Murray, Rep. Beyer and others, the country is well on its way to realizing the promise of evidence-based policymaking.