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Proponents of Evidence-Based Policy Face a Critical Challenge

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The recommendations by the recent Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission are a significant step towards creating a better supply of data for researchers and policymakers. But the next step is huge—getting people to use the data.

The “use of data” step is complicated by two elements: Who will use it and for what purpose?

The users of program evaluation and program performance data aren’t always clear. They may be citizens, other government officials (including elected or appointed officials), budgeteers, program managers and even auditors. And the potential uses of data can create tensions: Will data be used as a hammer for accountability purposes, or as a flashlight to spot what needs to be improved or exemplary programs that could serve as models for others?  

Many areas of government do not have good data to work with, but one that has matured significantly over the past decade is education, particularly elementary and secondary education. But even there, moving to the next step—getting education data used – has proven to be a far more difficult challenge. Interestingly, a non-profit advocacy group, the Data Quality Campaign, was formed in 2005 to undertake a three-year effort to “empower educators, families and policymakers with quality information to make decisions that ensure that students excel.”  However, 12 years later, the Campaign has found that this has been a much more challenging effort than it originally thought.

Over the past dozen years, the Campaign has made significant strides as both a resource for education information and as an advocate for its use. Its approach can serve as a model for similar initiatives in other policy domains.

The Campaign’s Approach   

The Campaign summarizes its evolution, with lessons and recommendations for others, in a report, “From Hammer to Flashlight: A Decade of Data in Education.” It notes that its challenge was “getting people other than specialists to become passionate champions for the power of data to transform education into a personalized, results-focused endeavor.” It was launched in 2005 by a consortium of 14 advocacy and constituency organizations committed to creating a culture within the education community around the collection and use of data to “inform action and improve student achievement.”

As the national “voice” focused on education data policy and practices, the Campaign sponsored a series of user-friendly resources:

  • Show Me the Data. The Campaign developed a national snapshot of the findability and usability of education data in each state.
  • Scavenger Hunt for State Report Cards. States are required by federal law to develop a scorecard on the quality of their education system. The Campaign assesses whether each state’s report card is understandable and how it compares to other states.
  • Bright Spots. The Campaign has prepared readable case studies of states that provide their education data in the most useful formats, and shows what these formats look like.
  • Building Roadmaps to Effective Data. The Campaign has prepared how-to guides for education professionals and parents to advocate for more effective displays and accessibility of existing education data in their states, school districts, and schools.

While the field of elementary and secondary education is rich with data, so are other policy domains, including health, environment, transportation, and energy, to name but a few. And there are equally important uses for these types of data by citizens, such as traffic congestion management, reducing hospital-acquired infections, and managing peak electrical loads. There are different degrees of maturity in these and other policy domains. And finding the data in non-technical formats is also a challenge for casual users. However, there has been an effort to begin to build an overarching one-stop data hub that is compelling and easy to use, as exemplified by the nonprofit USAFacts.org, which draws on a number of different data sources.  But these efforts are only a beginning.

Some Advice  

The good news in the performance movement is that increasingly, the collection of data is less of a problem. The big challenges ahead center around analyzing, interpreting, and getting information used. The key may be increasing the "data literacy" of individual users. This ties back to some specific actions that “performance geeks” can take, including:

  • providing timely data and analyses in a format that people can use to take action,
  • providing people the necessary training to use data continuously, effectively, and ethically, and
  • providing a forum for people to learn from each other, transfer knowledge, and share best practices.

It may be easy to describe what needs done, but in the end, as the Data Quality Campaign has found, it is hard to do and takes an incredible amount of persistence.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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