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April 6, 2016

Everything you need to know about the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking

April 6, 2016

If you thought that Democrats and Republicans couldn't agree on anything, you were wrong.

In an era of perhaps unprecedented partisanship in Washington, DC, every moment of collaborative policymaking is notable. That’s why we should take a moment to celebrate the bipartisan bill President Obama signed into law to start a federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

This law is a prime example of leaders from both parties, including heavy hitters like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, setting aside their differences and truly getting their wonk on.

With its focus on data systems and evidence building, the commission has flown under the radar of the national press but deserves greater attention. Here is what you should know about the new commission and how it lays critical groundwork for adopting evidence-based policies that maximize public investment and improve lives.

What is the commission supposed to do?

  • Explore how to open up federal data sources for more useful analysis and research. The federal government collects all sorts of data about the public, from tax returns to participation in social programs to the census. This information helps inform policymaking at all levels of government. Many of these data sources, however, are inaccessible to outside researchers. The commission will explore ways to increase access to this data to support all kinds of important policy research, including program evaluation, performance measurement, and cost-benefit analyses.
  • Examine how to connect data sets. The commission will look for ways to better integrate data on the same people and communities across different federal sources, which is usually difficult because of incompatible data systems, legal barriers, and other reasons. The commission will also explore ways to provide incentives for agencies to play nice and share data.
  • Develop a vision for a comprehensive data clearinghouse. As the commission considers how to make federal data more accessible and integrated, it will examine the infrastructure required to make data readily available to researchers in a single place and how such a clearinghouse might be self-funded.
  • Recommend robust ways to evaluate program design. The commission’s work goes beyond thinking about better data availability; it will also consider how to better incorporate strong ways of evaluating program design and “make recommendations on how best to incorporate outcomes measurement, institutionalize randomized controlled trials, and rigorous impact analysis into program design.” These types of evaluation help build evidence for what works best as we invest in programs to improve outcomes for citizens.
  • Figure out how to do all this while protecting privacy and security. The commission will focus on how to achieve these goals without threatening the privacy of individuals or the security of the data. To that end, the commission will outline who should and should not have access to clearinghouse data, what limitations on data use should exist, and how best to secure the information and protect individual privacy and confidentiality.

Who is going to be on the commission?

Like choosing sides for schoolyard baseball teams, 15 people will be appointed to the commission: three each from the president, Speaker Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate majority and minority leaders. The members will include academic researchers and experts on data, privacy, and program administration. The commission will consult with the leadership of all of the major federal agencies, as well.

Why does this commission matter?

By using research and evidence to inform decisions, policymakers can direct government resources effectively and efficiently to deliver better outcomes for society.

As Urban’s Margery Turner noted when the legislation was first announced, the commission will focus on “the most basic prerequisite for evidence-based policy: good data.” Access to data will allow researchers, program managers, and policymakers better answer key questions like “Did the program make the difference we hoped it would?” and ”For whom did it make the greatest impact?”

Some programs (e.g., supportive housing interventions or home visiting models) might even generate outcomes across different areas of well-being like health, employment and earnings, and involvement in the criminal justice system. Linking data sources allows researchers and policymakers to look for multidimensional solutions to challenging social problems.

More than ever, policymakers need evidence to help inform major decisions about program design, implementation, and funding. It is heartening to see both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge the value in expanding the potential for evidence-based policymaking with this commission. And while we have ideas on what the commission should focus on, we look forward to seeing what the commission accomplishes as it gets off the ground.

Members of the bipartisan budget conference Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) discuss their initial meeting at the US Capitol October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

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