Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., also questioned the need to create new program evaluation officer positions.

Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., also questioned the need to create new program evaluation officer positions. Sue Ogrocki/AP

Historically Bipartisan Movement for Evidence-Based Policy Starts to Turn Political

Lawmakers question need for new body to enable evidence-based policy.

Four members of the recent congressionally chartered Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking on Tuesday faced skepticism from lawmakers about their proposals to add new agency implementation staff. They also glimpsed some political fireworks that could threaten what has been a bipartisan project.

report released Sept. 7 by the 15-member panel of scholars and experienced agency executives included 22 recommendations for freeing up interagency data for use in enhancing program evaluations in health care, education and crime prevention, for example, while also protecting individual privacy.

But the plan to create a hacker-proof National Secure Data Service inside the Commerce Department--along with new chief evaluation officer positions in agencies--prompted questions.

“We already have chief program officers, so why create new positions?” asked Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., acting as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a hearing about how to break down barriers to data sharing to better measure program effectiveness. Given that Commerce’s Census Bureau is on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list, Russell said, why not wait until the agency has finished its tests and models for the 2020 census?

The National Secure Data Service would “not be some big new government agency with mountains of data,” said Brookings Institution scholar Ron Haskins, the commission’s co-chair. “It would be at Commerce at first to build on things that Census is already doing.” Census, he added, has the capacity to select the best research proposals, help people analyze data and ensure secure access.

“Employees could be borrowed” from elsewhere, because if Census itself had to do it, the bureau would have to stop doing something it is already doing, Haskins said. “Over the years, the service would be sent back to agencies, and I confess it would cost more over the years.”

Latanya Sweeney, a former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist now a professor of government and technology at Harvard University, said the new data specialists are needed because technology has so transformed society that agencies accustomed to protecting data from easy circulation haven’t adapted. “Errors happen on both sides, in the release of [inappropriate] private information,” and when useful evidenced-based research “is not being sent out at all,” she said. The commission’s goal of giving policymakers better metrics on program effectiveness requires agency “decision makers to ride the wave of technology and not be stuck in a 1970s format,” she said.

Agencies are “not working in a static environment, and instead of [their facing] a binary decision, it’s a continuum,” she added. “So let’s get the new techniques now so they go right into government use and we tell the people what the government is doing.”

Commission Chairwoman Katharine Abraham, formerly commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statics, said when researchers access the government’s 13 principal data creating centers, agencies too often take different approaches to what data to release. The question becomes which version, a public one or a more in-depth data set, she said.

Data availability is uneven across government, and agencies must increase their capacity for evidence-based decision-making, said Robert Shea, a veteran of the George W. Bush Office of Management and Budget and now a principal at Grant Thornton LLP.  He praised “learning agenda” programs at the Education and Labor departments, which plan data-gathering over multiple years to integrate it into their policy approach.

The whole effort should be coordinated by OMB, Shea added, saying that the central White House agency “has the tacit threat for budget impacts and has a lot of juice that other agencies don’t have.”  But even at OMB, things are “a little disjointed,” Shea said, with evidence issues spread around the offices focusing on performance, electronic government and regulations.

The movement toward evidence-based policy—which culminated in a 2016 law pushed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.—has brought hopes in Congress for improved metrics on whether individual programs are effective. “According to a 2013 GAO report, only 37 percent of managers who oversee 1,500 different federal programs say their programs had been evaluated in the previous five years,” Russell noted in beginning the hearing.

But oversight committee ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., launched an attack on the Trump administration’s  and congressional Republicans' apparent dismissal of evidence in such areas as voter fraud, repealing Obamacare, immigration reform and alleged abuses at Planned Parenthood. “When most people think of ‘evidence-based’ policymaking, they don’t think of the current administration or recent actions by Congress. Too often, the American people see firsthand how policies that Congress puts in place are completely unrelated to the facts.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., made similar comments about what he described as the Republicans’ refusal to consider evidence on evolution, climate change and marijuana policy.

Republicans such as Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, calling himself “a conservative who wants a smaller government,” expressed skepticism about the new secure data service, with others expressing worries that it will be vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Freshman Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., pressed the panelists on whether the move to evidence-based policy would establish clearer goals. “I don’t imagine there’s much satisfaction for our dedicated federal workers if they don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Shea agreed, saying most agency program managers pursue “inputs and are reluctant to hold themselves accountable for things beyond their control.” Also, having a clear mission “is a major factor in improving engagement, recruitment and retention,” he said.

Haskins encouraged lawmakers to “grill” nominees and agency officials on their program outcomes. “Most of the nation’s social programs,” he said, “produce modest or no impact on the problems they’re meant to address.”

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to attribute a quote to the proper speaker.