Landmark legislation enacted this year sets the stage for more evidence-based decision-making in government to the benefit of the taxpayer. This is an important first step and the question now is what comes next?
The following Q&A with Nick Hart, director of the Evidence Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, explores the impact of the new Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 and how to keep the momentum going.
Q. Why was this evidence legislation such a victory and did you worry it might not happen?
A. The new law is a victory because there are so few attempts that are successful in our legislative processes to reduce barriers for using data in government, and we know that there are many, that they are vast, and that they are complicated. Solving these issues requires a lot of time and detailed attention.
Right up to when it was signed into law, this was very much a nail-biter, in part because the reforms were designed to address government-wide problems. Using data across agencies requires us to take a government-wide focus, which brings in multiple committees of jurisdiction in Congress, numerous agencies, and a variety of stakeholder groups, with sometimes competing considerations.
Q. You were on year-end holiday break when Congress finally passed the bill, what was that like?
A. One of the challenges in the final stages of any congressional session is that there is a lot going on. It was a sort of miracle that the bill was enacted knowing the other priorities under consideration — when it went through the House and Senate finally at the end of session, Congress was discussing funding to keep the government open and other very important policy issues. But this priority still rose high on the agenda to get done, including for then-Speaker Paul Ryan as he was getting ready to retire from Congress.
There was a point during the December holidays when I told my spouse ‘the bill is totally dead, it doesn’t have any hope of making it past this point’. Then a couple of hours later we were working at a full sprint moving forward. The champions of the legislation in both the House and the Senate were really motivated to see it happen. They recognized it’s a big win for government effectiveness and frankly is just the right thing to do.
Q. What was BPC’s role?
A. BPC’s role through the entire process was multi-pronged. We championed the recommendations that came out of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and provided expertise around implementation strategies. For the legislation, we provided extensive technical assistance on solutions throughout the bill’s consideration in Congress, including for some of the issues that came up in the late stages.
Q. What was one issue that came up frequently?
A. Privacy themes surfaced throughout the bill’s consideration, suggesting the priority that members of Congress and their staff placed on strong privacy safeguards in the law. We want to make sure information about people or households is used responsibly, with appropriate transparency and accountability mechanisms. The legislation is actually a net improvement in privacy protections for how government uses data. That’s one of the reasons why this was able to get across the finish line, because it’s not a privacy harm, it’s a privacy gain. For me that was critical in the legislation’s design and will be one of the really exciting features as the law is implemented.
Q. How does evidence-based policymaking help Americans in their day-to-day lives?
A. We all need good information in the course of making decisions in our lives, and government is no different. If I’m purchasing a house or looking for an apartment to rent, I’m not just going to walk in and sign a contract, I’m going to survey what’s out there, view multiple houses and apartments, and might have a realtor giving me some expertise on the market. That same concept applies for government. We’re trying to create the infrastructure and make sure it is strong so government can do basic data analysis and have the right expertise to make good decisions on policies and programs that affect people. For example, making sure people who need them are getting food stamps in the most effective manner and that housing vouchers are targeted to the populations most in need and are being used effectively.
Across the board every policy or program in every government agency you can think of has real benefit to gain from the provisions of the legislation. We have a great need to ensure government programs are operating effectively and that they are continuously improving.
Q. What are next steps?
A. Many agencies are waiting to take cues from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The good news is OMB has already been planning for many features of this legislation through the Federal Data Strategy, and BPC has formally partnered with OMB to help support the development of that data strategy. So the work to implement is well underway at OMB and in the coming months we will see detailed guidance from OMB.
Even before that happens, there are some agencies already hitting the ground running to work on implementation. They’re taking a very close look at the law. I’ve been getting a lot of detailed questions from agencies asking for help in interpreting the meaning of certain provisions.
In terms of BPC’s work, we will do what we can to support implementation, working closely with OMB, agencies, and non-governmental organizations. At the end of the day we need broad engagement from everyone who cares about government working well to make implementation of this law successful.
We always considered the Evidence Act as phase one of the activities coming out of the commission. The next legislative phase will likely take up the concept of enabling a safe space with strong privacy protections for temporarily linking data across government agencies, an idea the commission called a data service. There is at least one proposal from the administration to consolidate certain statistical agencies. That could conceivably be the starting point for this discussion.
Q. Are you talking about creating one big database or a clearinghouse?
A. Definitely not. Think about it as a shared service center where agency one wants to link data to agency two, but neither wants to pass the data back and forth to each other with personal identifiers attached, and actually may be legally prohibited from doing that. Instead, they in effect use an intermediary which removes personal information so that the two agencies can share and combine data, then use the information to produce relevant statistics and insights. It is not a clearinghouse because it would not store this information for an indefinite period. The evidence commission provided extensive guidance on how to go about creating this type of shared service center.
Q. Last thoughts?
A. While this law is a major milestone, it’s also only a starting point. There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that what was intended as the goal of this legislation is what we actually see in practice. There are going to be a lot of tough conversations about who are the people that fill certain roles and how they relate to other parts of the organization and what it truly means to have strong privacy protections — all really important to get right. So if we don’t see implementation happen overnight, that’s okay, because it’s more important that we get it right than necessarily get it fast.