Two Years of Progress on Evidence-Based Policymaking in the United States

Evidence-Based Policymaking

Two Years of Progress on Evidence-Based Policymaking in the United States

Over the past two years, the prospect of the United States government and key decision-makers becoming more steeped in evidence-based policymaking has become increasingly bright. 

On September 7, 2017, the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (Evidence Commission) released its final report to the President and Congress with a strategy for better using the data that government already collects. The report contained 22 unanimous recommendations that focused on responsibly improving access to government data, strengthening privacy protections, and expanding the capacity to generate and use evidence.

Progress on Fulfilling the Commission’s Vision

While action has not yet been taken on all of the Evidence Commission’s recommendations, significant progress has occurred over the past two years. Here are some key highlights of what transpired in the last two years:

  • Evidence Act. The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (Evidence Act), enacted in January 2019, addresses half of the commission’s suggestions. It includes new directives around establishing federal government leadership roles for data management, program evaluation, and statistical expertise. The Evidence Act establishes new expectations for open data, data inventories, and improved data management. It also reinforces one of the strongest privacy and confidentiality laws in the country: the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act, which ensures that when government pledges confidentiality to the American public all steps are taken to appropriately protect data. 
  • Federal Data Strategy. In parallel to the Evidence Act, the White House’s management agenda includes the development of a Federal Data Strategy to recognize data as a strategic asset. The agenda prominently incorporates many of the concepts and approaches developed by the commission in the 10-year plan for improving government data access, management, and use. While the formal action plan directing agencies is not yet final, it is expected to reinforce many of the recommendations from the Evidence Commission included in the Evidence Act. 
  • Guidance to Agencies. In summer 2019, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued multiple guidance documents to agencies about addressing certain Evidence Commission recommendations. These included designating evaluation officers, appointing chief data officers, and identifying statistical experts, developing “learning agendas,” and incorporating new actions into annual budget and performance plans. 
  • Individual Agency Actions. In many cases, agencies started making progress in implementing the Evidence Commission recommendations even before guidance was issued. For example, the Small Business Administration developed and released its enterprise learning agenda in early 2018 and the Department of Health and Human Services developed an agency-specific data strategy released earlier in 2019.

Next Steps on Fulfilling the Commission’s Vision

The Evidence Commission set the stage for monumental changes in government data laws, processes, and culture. Agencies have initiated wholesale overhauls of data management practices and the recommendations are quickly becoming reality.

But much work remains to fulfill the bipartisan vision outlined by the Evidence Commission – that government data are meaningfully analyzed to produce credible evidence that is actually used to inform policymaking. In the coming months and years, here are five areas for further attention:

  1. Development and Authorization of the National Secure Data Service. The commission’s headline recommendation was alluded to in the Evidence Act with the establishment of an advisory committee to develop a detailed roadmap, but implementing the National Secure Data Service will require Congress and the President to provide appropriate legal authority to ensure the envisioned data linkage capabilities adequately meet the American public’s privacy expectations.
  2. Improvement to Access for Income and Earnings Data. The commission prominently highlighted that income data are used as a valuable outcome metric for evaluating a wide range of federal programs and policies. Yet, these data are among the most difficult to access, even when privacy guarantees are in place. Additional efforts are needed to enable researcher access to the National Directory of New Hires as well as other targeted improvements to this information that serves as a valuable proxy measure for improvements to quality of life. 
  3. Reforms to Existing Government Processes. The commission highlighted existing limitations of government’s data collection requirements and some issues for allocating funding to meet specific data and evidence needs. Clear enhancements to the Paperwork Reduction Act are still needed.
  4. Exploration of New Technologies. While some new research on emerging technologies for safely conducting data sharing activities occurred in the past two years, there are critical gaps that remain. Government agencies and the private sector must deliberately invest in needed research to enable effective data management and use. 
  5. Sustained Attention for Effective Evidence Act Implementation. The broad requirements for federal agencies embodied in the Evidence Act will only be successful with sustained attention from senior agency leaders and with adequate funding. Congress must ensure agencies receive appropriate resources in the next fiscal year to capitalize on the momentum for improving data quality, increasing the availability of open data, and developing useful analytics and evaluation for policymakers. 

Today, the Evidence Commission’s legacy can be celebrated as a substantial accomplishment in developing a sound and actionable strategy for better using government data. While more attention is needed to change government’s culture and operations to be more evidence-based, the early steps to better manage and use data are exceedingly promising.