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November 8, 2017

Congress is taking another big step to strengthen federal evidence-based policymaking

November 8, 2017

Just a few weeks after the Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking released its final report, Congress is moving to implement some of the commission’s key recommendations. H.R. 4174, or the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017, introduced by House Speaker Paul Ryan, was reported out of the House Oversight Committee on November 2. H.R. 4174 and a companion bill sponsored by Senator Patty Murray are important steps to improve the use of evidence and data in federal agencies.

My recent experience as chief evaluation officer at the US Department of Labor provides insights into how the bill can expand evidence-based policymaking and how the government can move forward.

Evaluation provisions

Three provisions in H.R. 4174 hold promise for increasing the priority and understanding of the role of evaluation in federal policymaking:

Define multiple types of evidence.

The legislation acknowledges there is more than one type of evidence. Formal program evaluations, statistical analysis, policy analysis, performance analysis, and implementation analysis all build evidence. Each approach answers different questions, and the collective results build evidence. Agencies, policymakers, program operators, and the public should understand that evidence comes in different forms, all of which should be produced using the best, most rigorous analytic methods available.

Require agencies to have a chief evaluation officer and use learning agendas.

Having a technically skilled, nonpolitical, senior leader with expertise in relevant disciplines and programs is essential to building a culture of evidence. The commission and H.R. 4174 call for every agency to have a chief evaluation officer to coordinate the agency’s evaluation efforts, establish an agency evaluation policy statement, set priorities for evaluations and the need for data, and develop and implement an evaluation plan or learning agenda to address key questions.

Subsequent study findings can help identify best practices. For example, the evidence that work-based job training and apprenticeships increase earnings and the evidence that home visiting services for young parents have positive effects on mothers and children came from studies initiated from systematic evaluation plans.

Codify cross-agency evaluation coordination activities.

Building a culture of evidence in the federal government will require not only agency-specific activities but cross-agency coordination and collaboration. Drawing on the commission’s recommendations, H.R. 4174 codifies the recently organized Interagency Council on Evaluation Policy and allows the Office of Management and Budget to coordinate and support evidence activities in the agencies. The clear intent is that cross-government coordination should facilitate evidence-building efforts among agencies. The recent National Academy of Sciences workshop on principles and practices for federal evaluation agencies is a direct result of cross-agency collaboration.

Implementation considerations

H.R. 4174’s big step forward goes a long way toward institutionalizing evidence-based policymaking in the federal government. We must maintain the momentum around evidence. Implementing the provisions in H.R. 4174 and in future bills will require careful attention to a few details: 

Recognize that each agency is unique.

Some agencies already have considerable evidence-building capacity, and others are just beginning. No single approach can work everywhere. Some agencies, like the Department of Labor, already have a chief evaluation officer who leads a technically skilled staff to develop learning agendas produced in coordination with each of the operating agencies in the department, which result in the department’s annual evaluation plan. The Employment and Training Administration (ETA), one of the largest agencies in the Department of Labor, has a five-year evaluation plan developed with input from state and local agencies, stakeholders, and the research community.

The ETA plan provides input into its annual learning agendas. Lessons from agencies and subagencies like these can help others build the evidence capacity that H.R. 4174 requires.

Reinforce the independence and objectivity of evaluation offices and chief evaluation officers.

H.R. 4174 and the commission acknowledge the importance of basic principles that govern statistical activities and evaluations, including independence, rigor, and objectivity. The report and the bill provide a foundation for every agency, supported and encouraged by the Evaluation and Statistical Agency Councils and the Office of Management and Budget.

Principles and Practices of Federal Statistical Agencies includes clear language on independence and is strongly endorsed in the National Academies workshop on principles and practices of federal evaluation agencies. Going forward, the focus should be on supporting progress. A centralized process and requirements for a cookie-cutter approach will fail to expand evidence capacity and instead could be viewed as just another reporting requirement. 

Avoid unintentional bureaucratic expansions and paperwork.

H.R. 4174 provides for cross-agency collaboration and coordination around evidence-based activities. Nonetheless, we must be careful not to allow government-wide activities, such as government-wide evaluation plans, to unnecessarily add to the federal bureaucracy or reporting procedures that divert agency time, resources, and attention away from activities that produce rigorous, high-quality results that will add to the evidence needed to make evidence-informed policy decisions.

Agencies can seize the opportunity to expand their evidence capacity, but they must remain vigilant about what it takes to do so effectively.

Visitors tour the Rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. Photo by Susan Walsh/AP.



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