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Why Biden's Embrace of Evidence in Policymaking Is Just What We Need Right Now

A new presidential memo signals commitment from the very top to the use of data and science at a time when the country is confronted by major crises, two experts say.

Although under the radar of most Americans, a memo issued last week by President Biden to federal agency heads has the potential to launch a new golden age of evidence-based policymaking. It could improve the lives of millions of Americans by making federal programs and policies more efficient and effective. It could also help achieve the president’s priorities around reducing economic and racial disparities.

There are several reasons why the administration’s “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking” is important. First, it signals commitment from the very top to increasing agencies’ use of evidence and data, and to using evidence that’s free from political interference. That’s vital because there’s no substitute for a clear and visible leadership commitment to driving change within government. In fact, the memo’s emphasis on the importance of evidence and data was echoed in recent executive orders addressing racial equality, the COVID-19 response and re-opening schools.

The memo is the latest chapter is what has been a bipartisan effort over recent decades to strengthen evidence-based decision making. The George W. Bush administration, for example, set standards for rigorous evidence and asked agencies to rate the evidence behind their programs. The Obama administration launched new evidence-based grant programs, created a behavioral insights team, and established chief evaluation offices within agencies. More recently, OMB under the Trump administration asked agencies to thoughtfully implement the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, a bipartisan effort by Congress enacted in early 2019.

On the whole, the evidence movement has been a good-government success story, with parallel advances at the state and local levels. The movement has increased the return from tax dollars, helped expand programs that work, and identified ineffective approaches to cut. Progress, however, has been strongest in a few departments and sub-agencies, mostly human-services ones.

What could catalyze broader change? We’d say visible, consistent signaling by leadership at the department and agency level. If agency leaders understand and believe that the White House truly sees evidence and data as important tools to accomplish the administration’s agenda, those leaders will prioritize building a culture of learning and improvement. It’s why a memo from President Biden saying that it’s “the policy of my Administration to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data” is a big deal and an important cornerstone.

Beyond the signaling value, the memo is important in requiring agencies to take specific steps that draw on best practices in using evidence. That includes asking agencies to review whether their evidence-building efforts are consistent with a 2015 presidential memorandum calling on agencies to use behavioral insights to improve the design of programs and policies to better serve the American people. Those “nudges” and program simplifications have helped programs at all levels of government to better achieve their missions, from encouraging more veterans to get flu shots to increasing the number of unemployed people who enroll in job-training classes.

The memo also calls on agencies to make their data available (where appropriate and while ensuring confidentiality) to researchers in order to evaluate the effectiveness of programs and to help improve program results. The same requirement is part of the Evidence Act, but a directive from the top will help speed up progress. Broader access to programs’ administrative data can greatly reduce the cost of program evaluation and accelerate our learning around the president’s top priorities.

A final reason that the memo is important: It calls on agencies to embrace a wide variety of evidence-building approaches that can help them address their specific challenges. That includes “pilot projects, randomized control trials, quantitative-survey research and statistical analysis, qualitative research, ethnography, research based on data linkages ... and other approaches that may be informed by the social and behavioral sciences and data science.” That’s useful, since the work of evidence-building and analytics should always start with identifying the problem to be solved and then identifying the most rigorous methods that are feasible and useful.

How could the administration build on the momentum of the memo? We recently suggested five steps it could take to support the evidence agenda and improve results, including launching a visible effort to coordinate the use of evidence, data and innovation. The Biden memo, by underscoring the administration’s support for evidence and data, lays a cornerstone for actions that could make this the most important era to date of evidence-based decision making.

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.

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