The blog of the Urban Institute
February 5, 2019

A new law could help the government rely on evidence to improve programs

February 5, 2019

Evidence-based policymaking is founded on using quality research and data to improve government programs. What matters is what works. The enactment of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act in the first week of 2019 is a meaningful step toward strengthening evidence use and capacity at the federal level.

Building on bipartisan support in Congress and the recommendations of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission, the law includes provisions to enhance evidence and evaluation capacity in federal agencies and to protect privacy and confidentiality while improving access to data.

The Urban Institute’s cross-center initiative on Evidence-Based Policy Capacity and its leadership of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Collaborative has contributed to strategies for incorporating evidence into the government’s daily operations and decisions.

Key provisions:

The Foundations Act seeks to improve how agencies, policymakers, program operators, and the public use evidence about what works. We note important ways key provisions could support federal agency programs.

Streamline coordination for independent and objective evidence-building activities.

Each federal agency must designate an evaluation officer to oversee and coordinate evidence-building functions. This nonpartisan point person will have research and technical evaluation expertise to ensure studies are independent.

An evaluation officer who fully understands the agency’s mission can help determine what questions should be studied and can interpret results that are relevant to the programs. A high-caliber staff of evaluation specialists will align research to the agencies’ programmatic data and functions.

Systematize research plans and methods.

Planning is part and parcel of evaluation. The law makes clear that all agencies are to have an evidence-building plan to help develop strategies around research and evaluation.

This mandate follows the commission’s recommendation of establishing agency learning agendas, which can help agencies identify important policy questions, methodological approaches, and challenges to developing evidence. Incorporating key stakeholder engagement into this process brings expertise in identifying and prioritizing research questions and in disseminating and updating learning agendas.

Increase access to government data.

The data the government collects could improve program efficiency and effectiveness. But there is concern about security and privacy. The Foundations Act includes important provisions such as requiring agencies to create data inventories, designate chief data officers and evaluation officers, and improve transparency about how data can be accessed and used.

Strong data and evaluation teams will facilitate data use and privacy safeguards, expanding access to public data for administrators, researchers, and evaluators.

Implementation considerations

As agencies implement the Foundation Act’s framework, three issues are important to keep in mind.

1. Each agency is unique and is at a different stage of evidence-building capacity.

No single blueprint will work everywhere. Although implementation will be different depending on departments’ needs and capacity, rigorous and consistent standards are critical to quality of methods. But the Foundations Act’s intent for cross-government coordination will help agencies learn from each other and improve their data and evaluation activities.

2. Evidence building is an evolving process, and it will take time to effectively inform policy and support public needs.

By adopting multi-year learning agendas and integrating evidence into each step of a program, evidence standards can become a part of the program’s design and implementation. The environment in which federal agencies implement programs is constantly changing. Even with evidence-based approaches, programs encounter new challenges in different environments over time.

The Foundations Act pushes agencies to take a comprehensive approach to evidence, going beyond examining program data outcomes by using academic analytic methods to estimate effects and examine alternative strategies.

3. Open data does not mean sacrificing privacy and security.

The law represents bipartisan support for loosening up the government’s rigid data infrastructure.  But the law also requires strong, clear procedures for managing and protecting private information, while allowing it to be used for high-quality program evaluations.

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act has the power to equip agencies with the technical resources, tools, and knowledge needed for evidence-based policymaking. It reflects bipartisan commitment to a strong culture of evidence built on independence, rigor, objectivity, relevance, transparency, and ethical practices. Seeing these ideas put into practice will pave the way for improving public programs.

Illustration by alexmillos via GettyImages.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.