How the Biden Administration Can Supercharge Results by Using Evidence

Believe it or not, there has been progress over the last four years in the use of evidence and data to inform decision-making. The new administration can build on those gains.

Here’s the good news: The movement to build and use credible evidence about what works within federal agencies—the “evidence agenda,” as it’s called—made significant progress over the last four years. In fact, a new snapshot of nine leading agencies produced by the nonpartisan Results for America (where one of us, Jed Herrmann, works) shows that eight of those agencies made progress just in the last year.

Important credit goes to Congress, which in 2018 passed the bipartisan Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. The Evidence Act, as it is known, requires agencies to build new capacity around evidence and data. Just as important were the dedicated federal career civil servants who kept the flame alive by advancing evidence building at their agencies.

Here’s what was missing, however, and what the incoming administration could bring: high-profile support for the use of evidence from White House and agency leaders. That support would set a clear tone that the Biden administration expects staff to use evidence for both spending decisions and management of programs. It would be a rallying cry that agencies should use evidence where it exists and build evidence where it’s lacking.

So how can the Biden team ensure and demonstrate leadership support for the evidence agenda once in office? We recommend the following steps:

Launch a more visible effort to coordinate and advance the use of evidence, data and innovation. The new administration should create a visible, high-profile coordinating office within the White House to help agencies effectively implement policies. By working with agencies, this office would make sure the administration is achieving its desired results by taking the next steps in evidence-informed, results-focused government. The team could be small, but it should be situated in a visible-enough way—with direct reporting to the president or vice president—to be able to coordinate evidence and data efforts across agencies. Importantly, it should ensure that these efforts are focused on the administration’s top priorities, including the COVID-19 response, economic recovery and advancing racial equity.

Set expectations that newly appointed deputy secretaries will genuinely function as chief operating officers. While federal law already designates deputy secretaries as chief operating officers, the provision has not been consistently implemented. The new administration should ensure that deputy secretaries take responsibility for achieving agencies’ outcomes and improving operational excellence, including the use of evidence and data. By doing that, deputy secretaries would send a powerful signal to their agencies that performance, sound management and outcomes matter to leadership.

Find and elevate those who kept the evidence flame alive. To further support this administrationwide approach to evidence-informed policymaking, newly appointed agency executives should identify the staff who helped make meaningful advances in the use of evidence and data during the Trump administration. As a starting place, they should look to their agency’s Evaluation Officer and Chief Data Officer who have been developing the learning agendas, evaluation plans, and capacity assessments required by the Evidence Act. They should support and elevate those employees’ efforts. These evidence champions within agencies—now with stronger leadership support—can help catalyze a focus on learning and doing what works.

Continue choosing leaders who care about evidence and results. There is no substitute for political appointees in senior White House and agency roles who are passionate about good government and doing what works, who ask for evidence before making key decisions, and who ensure that evidence experts are in the room when important decisions are made. By their actions, those leaders send signals to their staffs that are more powerful than any memo or speech, or even evidence legislation, can send. It’s a positive sign that senior appointments made by the Biden transition team so far fit that mold.

Identify ways the federal government could help states and localities improve their outcomes. Many federal programs are implemented by states and localities, so achieving a more evidence- and results-focused government will require federal agencies to help states and localities better use evidence, data and innovation. As one of us (Andrew Feldman) wrote recently, a working group led by the Office of Management and Budget, with bipartisan members from state and local governments as well as representatives of federal agencies, could lead that effort.

As we look to a new presidential administration, we should be grateful to all those who helped make progress on the evidence agenda over the past four years. The big opportunity, however, lies ahead. The Biden administration has the chance to significantly expand the role for evidence-based decision making, turning pockets of strong evidence use into a government that has a much stronger culture of learning and continuous improvement. That would not only improve the lives of millions of Americans but also, as we have learned in the past year, potentially save countless lives as well.

Andrew Feldman is a director in the public sector practice at Grant Thornton and also hosts the Gov Innovator podcast. He has served at both the federal and state levels, including as a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.

Jed Herrmann is vice president of state and federal policy implementation at Results for America. He served as Senior Advisor to the CEO at the Corporation for National and Community Service in the Obama administration.