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FACT SHEET: Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act

By Nick Hart, Sandy Davis

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Why does evidence-based policymaking matter?

The American public wants a government that operates effectively and efficiently. In order for government to do so, policymakers need good information on which to base decisions. Whether developing regulations, setting funding levels, or determining which policies to advance, policymakers constantly demand that evidence be generated and available to meet this need. But too little evidence is produced to satisfy this demand.  This legislation will improve the ability of researchers, evaluators, and statisticians both inside and outside government to securely use the data government already collects to better inform important policy decisions.

What is Congress doing to strengthen evidence-based policymaking?

On October 31, 2017, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray introduced the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (H.R. 4174 and S. 2046) which will begin to improve the ability of researchers, evaluators, and statisticians both inside and outside government to securely use the data government already collects to better inform important policy decisions.  The bill includes ten of the recommendations offered to Congress by the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. The legislation was quickly reported out of committee and passed the House on November 15 and now awaits Senate action.

What was the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking?

The U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) was established in 2016 by legislation jointly sponsored by Ryan and Murray. CEP issued its final report in September 2017 to Congress and the president. The CEP report is a bipartisan strategy for ensuring that rigorous evidence is created efficiently and as a routine part of government operations that can, in turn, be used to construct effective public policy. CEP unanimously approved 22 recommendations to improve data access, strengthen privacy protections, and enhance government’s capacity for evidence building.

What is the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative?

After the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) ended, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) began an initiative to promote the CEP’s recommendations and continue its work. BPC’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative will take the momentum around the CEP recommendations and the legislation to move forward on creating a culture of evidence use in policymaking. The BPC initiative is led by former CEP co-chairs Katharine Abraham and Ron Haskins.

What is the goal of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act?

The legislation proposed by Ryan and Murray addresses unintentional limits on data access, inadequate privacy practices, and insufficient capacity to generate the amount of quality evidence needed to support policy decisions in government. The legislation promotes the commission’s vision of “a future in which rigorous evidence is created efficiently, as a routine part of government operations, and used to construct effective public policy.”

How does this legislation address the commission’s recommendations?

HR 4174 and S 2046 incorporate ten of the CEP recommendations in part, or in full. Aspects of the following CEP recommendations are addressed in the legislation:

  • CEP Rec. 2-3: Require strong privacy protections for using data for statistical purposes.
  • CEP Rec. 2-8: Develop a streamlined process for researchers to securely access government data for approved projects.
  • CEP Rec. 3-1: Require departments to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment on de-identified confidential data before public release.
  • CEP Rec. 3-3: Assign senior officials with responsibility for coordinating access to and stewardship of data resources for evidence building.
  • CEP Rec. 3-4: Codify existing administrative guidance in the Office of Management and Budget’s Statistical Policy Directive #1 to protect public trust in statistics.
  • CEP Rec. 4-2: Establish a representative committee to advise on the policies of the National Secure Data Service.
  • CEP Rec. 4-5: Increase efforts to acknowledge what data government collects and make available documentation on those data.
  • CEP Rec. 5-1: Establish Chief Evaluation Officers in major government agencies.
  • CEP Rec. 5-2: Develop “learning agendas” to identify evidence-building priorities and needs.
  • CEP Rec. 5-3: Coordinate evidence-building activities across government.

Why doesn’t the legislation include all 22 CEP recommendations?

The ten CEP recommendations included in the bill reflect those prioritized to build basic capacity while prioritizing important privacy protections at the outset. Future authorizing and appropriations legislation will incorporate additional CEP recommendations.

Do the former CEP commissioners support the legislation?

The former CEP co-chairs Katharine Abraham and Ron Haskins said in a recent statement that they “strongly endorse” the legislation. Abraham was appointed to chair the CEP  by President Obama and Haskins was appointed co-chair by Speaker Ryan.

Has the Bipartisan Policy Center taken a position on the legislation?

While the Bipartisan Policy Center is a non-profit organization that does not take positions on legislation, our partner organization BPC Action has issued two statements in support of the legislation.

How does the bill strengthen existing privacy protections?

The legislation strengthens existing privacy protections in place under the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act of 2002 (CIPSEA) by adding a new section to CIPSEA that would:

  • strengthen laws that ensure the pledges of confidentiality made by government agencies cannot be violated
  • establish a new position in each department charged with ensuring protections of data are enforced and coordinated across government
  • require new regulations that establish standards for accessing confidential data that tailor access based on data sensitivity and needed protections
  • require that certain de-identified confidential data made available publicly first undergo a comprehensive risk assessment to reduce the chances that individuals can be re-identified

What will this legislation do to address transparency of evidence-building activities?

The CEP recommendations seek to increase transparency and provide information to the public about how government agencies are using their information to enable evidence building and ensure appropriate restrictions for qualified researchers to protect privacy. Currently when projects that use confidential government data are completed, agencies are not generally required to inform the public about what data are used and for what purpose. The bill establishes a new requirement that when government approves a qualified researcher to access confidential data, project information will be available to “ensure full transparency” about how data are used. In addition, all applications, even if not accepted, will be made public.

Does the bill create a central tracking system for the American public?

No, the legislation does not establish a new database nor does the legislation authorize any new data collection. CEP specifically recommended against the establishment of a data warehouse or clearinghouse in its final recommendations  and the Ryan-Murray legislation would not create such a clearinghouse. 

How does the legislation address existing bans on data collection and use?

The bill does not modify existing bans on data collection or use. CEP specifically identified the “student unit record” ban in its final report as one potential ban that Congress may want to revisit. While this legislation does not directly address that ban, the College Transparency Act (S. 1121) does identify strategies to better analyze postsecondary student outcomes.

Does this legislation expand government bureaucracy?

While the legislation includes directives for government agencies to establish new positions like a chief evaluation officer and a chief data officer, the roles are written to ensure senior government officials fill critical gaps that exist today for generating and using evidence in policymaking.

How would this legislation affect researchers, evaluators, and statisticians?

If enacted, the legislation would help clarify for researchers, evaluators, and statisticians both inside and outside government how to go about accessing confidential data. In addition, better information about what data government collects with the appropriate documentation to indicate whether analysis of those data addresses a researcher’s specific question will help ensure researchers are not granted access to unneeded data, while improving the efficiency with which projects are reviewed and completed.

Has President Trump indicated he will sign the legislation?

The Trump administration has not yet offered a formal statement on the legislation.

Which organizations have endorsed the CEP recommendations?

More than 100 professional associations and non-profit organizations have issued statements about the CEP report and recommendations, many endorsing and encouraging implementation of the CEP recommendations. Statements include those from the following:

KEYWORDS: PAUL RYAN, PATTY MURRAY, 115TH CONGRESS, PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, COMMISSION ON EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING, RON HASKINS, EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING INITIATIVE, FOUNDATIONS FOR EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING ACT, KATHARINE ABRAHAM