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Improved Data Coordination and Use Required for Evidence-Based Policymaking

By Nick Hart

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Government today collects a vast amount of potentially useful data on federal programs relevant for assessing how they meet their intended objectives. However, the government has failed to adequately use this information as it assesses, authorizes, and modifies programs and policies. Making better use of existing data is one clear approach for ensuring policymakers can make informed decisions about how best to execute and improve government programs.

The U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) recognized that numerous functions that support evidence building are critical in government but not all currently exist. Two of those functions were highlighted as largely non-existent in government today: data policy coordination and program evaluation. CEP made two specific recommendations to address these gaps.  Legislation addressing those and other CEP recommendations (H.R. 4174 and S. 2046) is under active consideration by Congress.

Leadership is Needed to Effectively Coordinate Data Policy Issues

Within federal departments, no single group of leaders can consistently devote their attention to both protecting and using data for evidence building. Yet, for successful evidence building to occur, these activities must be simultaneously present.

To provide the leadership necessary to coordinate use of data resources, CEP recommended that departments assign responsibility to a Senior Agency Official for Data Policy, which could be a position designated to coordinate statistical and information policy matters within a department. As government collects more data through running programs and conducting surveys, coordinating these data in a meaningful way for evidence building will become increasingly critical. 

Today such coordination is rare in government. Agencies have Chief Information Officers to oversee implementation of the technology infrastructure, but data must be recognized as more than a technology asset. Senior Agency Officials for Privacy deploy privacy protections across the full breadth of agency data, many of which are less essential for evidence building. Some departments also have statistical agency leaders who oversee other data resources, which fall within the scope of evidence-building activities. But agencies generally lack a leader to manage data resources in a manner that specifically supports evidence building. The CEP recommendation encourages agencies have a staffer who specifically manages data resources. Importantly, CEP recommends that heads of statistical agencies who already have experience protecting individual confidentiality and deploying statistical practices to protect privacy lead the effort.

Leadership is Needed for Sustained Implementation of Government Evaluation Efforts

CEP concluded that in government today far too little evaluation of programs and policies occurs. The absence of evaluation is attributed to the lack of senior leader attention to its production and the absence of meaningful coordination for setting evaluation priorities. While some parts of government operate comparatively well in this regard today, many lack the capacity to generate the breadth of evidence necessary to meet policymakers’ needs.

CEP specifically recommended the designation of Chief Evaluation Officers in departments. The recommendation recognizes that in some departments evaluation activities may be fulfilled in part by existing processes and institutional infrastructure, but the role may need to be explicitly identified. The Chief Evaluation Officer would provide independent and centralized technical expertise for strengthening the program evaluation function within departments, including generating evaluation as well as translating the results for policymakers. Specific responsibilities suggested include establishing evaluation policies, coordinating technical expertise across a department, providing leadership in setting evaluation priorities, and establishing human capital and workforce strategies that enable more evaluation. Several examples of the Chief Evaluation Officer model exist, including the Department of Labor which has a department-wide position and the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services, which has a bureau-level position. But these examples are few and far between in government today as the evaluation function is largely non-existent in most government agencies.  

Coordination is Needed to Address Policymakers’ Key Questions

CEP recommended the recognition of the Senior Agency Official for Data Policy and the Chief Evaluation Officer precisely because the functions that each reflects are largely missing in government. To make the use of rigorous evidence a routine part of government operations, recognition of the unique roles for leaders is necessary. 

There are several positions that already exist, such as Performance Improvement Officers and the recently established Program Management Officers, which are productive and necessary partners within government agencies. For example, Performance Improvement Officers have a primary mission of supporting implementation of performance measurement and monitoring systems that rely largely on aggregate or descriptive statistics. These positions can work in tandem with evaluation and policy research activities, since the latter focuses on methods to assess effectiveness, efficiency, and worth or other activities to gain knowledge about policies and programs.  These functions are each necessary and compatible, and should work closely together.

Senior leaders have wide purviews and numerous priorities that compete with the critical gaps identified by CEP for data policy and evaluation. Meaningfully addressing these gaps and sustaining an infrastructure that continues to support the capacity for evidence building will require implementing the CEP recommendations.

Today there are many important questions that are not being addressed, even with the data government already collects. Establishing the Senior Agency Officials for Data Policy and Chief Evaluation Officers in government departments will go a long way in addressing these significant gaps. 

KEYWORDS: COMMISSION ON EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING, EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING INITIATIVE