The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 11, 2017

Five take-aways from the evidence-based policymaking report to Congress

Evidence-based policymaking applies data and research findings to solve critical problems, while ensuring that government is serving its citizens as effectively and efficiently as possible. Last week marked an important milestone in how the federal government might use and build evidence in the future.

At an event last Thursday, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking announced the release of its final report. The commission, under the joint leadership of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic senator Patty Murray, was established last year to develop strategies for increasing the availability and use of existing data and strengthening the government’s approach to evidence building.

Given the Urban Institute’s mission to provide policymakers with evidence, the commission’s report is of great significance to Urban and similar organizations. But the commission’s recommendations are relevant to anyone who agrees that our national policies should be based on evidence and research.

The comprehensive report outlines nearly two dozen recommendations for action to Congress. After reviewing the report, we noted five key concepts that will shape the future of evidence-based policymaking.

1. To increase access to government data, security and privacy are essential.

In its final report, the commission rejects the idea that improving access to confidential data presumes increasing privacy risk, which is good news for everyone who relies on government data to craft research, make decisions, and improve policy. But the centrality of security and privacy remain a top concern for good reason.

Careful and transparent procedures and review processes—including data stewards in federal departments, legal penalties for misuse of data, and public representation—must come first. Only then can the value of the vast amount of data the federal government already collects be unlocked through increased data linking and access.

2. Data linking can improve research and evaluation opportunities.

If implemented, the commission’s recommendations would improve research and evaluation opportunities and expand the kinds of social policy questions that can be answered through data linking.

In service of access, security, and privacy, the commission recommends establishing a National Secure Data Service (NSDS) to provide a secure way to integrate and access existing data for members inside and outside of government. The good news for researchers is that the service would expand access to data and facilitate a uniform process of gaining access, instead of the current patchwork system that varies by department.

The major challenge will be setting up such an entity within the federal government. The vision for the NSDS goes beyond virtually any other department agency, with the authority for “grant-making, cooperative agreements, workforce development, and other activities” to facilitate work with partner organizations, as well as keeping up with state-of-the-art privacy and data security technologies.

3. Past efforts in evidence building offer lessons for today.

Strategies for evidence building in federal departments have worked well in the past and should be replicated. For example, the commission recommends that each federal department should identify or establish a chief evaluation officer to coordinate evaluation and policy research.

Having a consistent point person at each department to coordinate evidence-building efforts facilitates internal and interagency collaboration. And building on previous efforts like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's Research Roadmap, the commission recommends that federal departments be directed to develop multiyear learning agendas to prioritize research and identify key knowledge gaps.

But the report is silent on other evidence-building approaches such as pay for success and tiered-evidence grantmaking that were employed in multiple departments in the past administration.

4. The future of data sharing between states and federal agencies is uncertain.

The commission recommends additional data sharing between federal agencies and states, but stops short of mandates. The commission recommends that Congress enact statutory and other changes to ensure that state-collected data become available and that current statutes limiting the use of administrative data for evidence building be reviewed.

But the commission stops short of recommending that data sharing be explicitly required for all state programs that receive federal funds. Without such requirements, the likelihood of states taking the extra step to share data with their federal counterparts may be much more unlikely.

5. A host of stakeholders in evidence-based policymaking must fill in the details.

Legislators and their staff, government departments, external stakeholders, and academics will be needed to help determine the future of evidence-based policymaking. Many of the recommendations in the report will depend on a combination of lawmaking, regulatory changes, and technical expertise to be implemented.

The commission largely defers to Congress to determine how best to fund the National Secure Data Service’s work and the broader federal evidence-building agenda, though it provides recommendations related to user fees, set-aside authorities, and “Evidence Incentive Funds,” which would encourage states to rely on evidence in crafting policy.

The commission’s final report lays the groundwork for a more consistent and effective approach to data and evidence that could modernize federal processes and help better understand and combat important problems. But the ultimate impact will be decided by what comes next.

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