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There’s New Hope for Proponents of Evidence-Based Policy

A federal commission's top task may be setting a truly bipartisan agenda.

Efforts to broaden the use of data and research in federal policymaking may receive a substantial boost from a commission created by Congress last month.  The new Evidence-based Policymaking Commission, established by legislation signed by President Obama on March 30, is charged with identifying ways to increase the use of such information. Its most important task, however, may not be coming up with new ideas, but providing a bipartisan imprimatur for ideas that already exist.

Evidence-based policymaking—an interconnected collection of issues that includes making programs more data-driven, increasing the use of rigorous evaluations, and shifting funding from programs that do not work to those that do—is an idea that has drawn significant support from prominent members of both parties. But it is also one that has advanced at a snail's pace.

Its history can be traced back several decades, at least to the Reagan administration if not before. However, the pace has been stepped up in recent years under the Obama administration, which has created a policy office at the White House, an evidence-focused team at OMB, and a number of evidence-based initiatives like the Investing in Innovation program at the Department of Education and the Social Innovation Fund. Evidence-based policymaking has also drawn significant support from Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, and conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.

Despite the breadth of this support, however, funding for initiatives with a strong evidence base still represents only a tiny fraction of federal spending overall.  Even the idea of an evidence commission, which eventually passed with unanimous support in both the House and Senate, took nearly two years to be enacted.

Now that it has been created, the new commission's primary task will be to sharply accelerate this pace by making bipartisan recommendations—in a report that is due in 15 months—that can be embraced by both Congress and the newly elected president next year.  This is partly a technical challenge, one best assigned to experts, but it is also a political one.

In fact, much of the technical work has already been done, but under an outgoing Democratic president who is viewed with suspicion by Republicans. A central role of the new commission will be to sort out and review the Obama administration’s prior efforts, particularly with respect to data, to determine what deserves its bipartisan stamp of approval. With a 75 percent decision threshold for its final report and a major portion of the commission’s members being appointed by Speaker Ryan and the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, any recommendations coming from the commission will by definition require substantial bipartisan support.

Core Responsibilities

Given this overall mission, what might the commission do?  One clear focus will be making administrative data more widely available to researchers for use in evaluations and performance measurement.

Doing so could substantially boost the knowledge base for federal programs by reducing evaluation costs and increasing the speed and reliability of studies that rely on randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, which commonly compare the results of programs across similar populations

For example, judging the effectiveness of federal workforce programs could be made easier by giving researchers access to data already collected through the Unemployment Insurance program.

Fred Doolittle, vice president for K-12 education at MDRC, an evaluation firm that has conducted a large number of federally-funded evaluations, says most of his firm's studies routinely draw upon such data. "For large-scale, multi-site studies, they are indispensable," he said.

Another central focus of the commission will be identifying existing federal data sets and recommending whether Congress should create a clearinghouse that would make them easier to access by independent evaluators. 

Stretch Goals

Data issues will loom large on the commission’s agenda, but they may not be the only focus. Those who are familiar with the administration's thinking say this is where most of its attention lies, reflecting a relatively narrow reading of the legislation. But others say that it will be the commissioners who set the agenda, not the staff, and that they may choose to interpret their mandate more broadly.

For example, the commission could review the administration's existing tiered-evidence strategies, which direct more funding to programs with greater evidence of effectiveness. It might also recommend ways to increase the use of cost-benefit analysis. Others have suggested that the commission might make recommendations on how to reform federal privacy laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

An even wider set of potential issues could be found in a comprehensive review of evidence-based policy assembled by the W.T. Grant Foundation, which published a series of articles last fall on topics such as cost-effectiveness research, implementation science, and research-practice partnerships.

The commission’s potentially wide latitude on these issues suggests that appointment decisions, particularly on the chair and co-chair slots, may ultimately determine its agenda.  Some worry, however, that the appointees may be too heavily weighted toward academic researchers and too light on those with real world experience.  The commission could profit from both perspectives, but commissioners with frontline experience may be more practical and less vulnerable to ideological divisions.

"I would love it if the commission looked outside Washington at some of the states and what they are doing," said Nicole Truhe, government affairs director for America Forward, a coalition of results-oriented nonprofit organizations that supported the creation of the commission. "I think including individuals on the commission who have experience using evidence on the ground will be important."

MDRC’s Doolittle agreed, adding that many of the data sets that researchers are most interested in are held by state and local governments anyway, not the federal government.

Investments in state and local evidence initiatives have accelerated in recent years. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts have invested heavily in the Results First initiative, which has been providing assistance to a number of states.  Similar efforts are also underway at the city level, including an effort supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies called What Works Cities.

Potential Limitations

Going too far afield, however, might make it harder to achieve the bipartisan agreement that will be the commission's central aim.

"They need to keep political decisions outside of the commission. That would be the best outcome," said David Muhlhausen, a research fellow for the Heritage Foundation.

Limited time may be another barrier.  By law, the commission must be appointed by mid-May.  With recommendations due by the summer of 2017, there may not be enough time to review ideas that have not already been substantially vetted. 

Given the partisan nature of policymaking in Washington in general, though, just finding a way to provide bipartisan blessing for ideas that already exist—even if they end up being limited to wonky data issues—would be a major step forward.

Patrick Lester is the director of the Social Innovation Research Center.