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A Moment for More and Better Evidence for Government

By Nick Hart, Tim Shaw

Friday, October 20, 2017

The American public wants a government that operates effectively and efficiently, as do policymakers and program administrators. But far too often the evidence needed to improve these government programs and policies is not available.

This was the conclusion of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking when it issued its bipartisan report in September 2017. The 15 members of the Commission – appointed by Republicans and Democrats – recognized that the country can do better at generating relevant and credible evidence to routinely inform government decision-making.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) in 2016 led the effort to establish the commission, which is often referred to as the Ryan-Murray Commission. Under their leadership, Congress created the commission in an effort to improve how decisions are made in Washington. The law provided the commission just over a year to develop a strategy for better using the data that government already collects to generate evidence, with appropriate protections for privacy and confidentiality.

The American public wants a government that operates effectively and efficiently, as do policymakers and program administrators.

The commission in September delivered a strategy for improving how government generates evidence. And it did so unanimously, working through partisan and ideological perspectives to conclude: “Taxpayers and policymakers should receive credible information to know and understand how well the programs and policies they fund achieve their intended goals.”

The Ryan-Murray Commission’s proposed strategy includes 22 recommendations that tackle the most significant challenges for building more and better evidence today: limits on data access, insufficient privacy protections, and a lack of institutional capacity. Katharine Abraham and Ron Haskins, who chaired the commission, are now leading an initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center to make the commission’s recommendations a reality.

Improving Secure Access to Data

The commission recognized that administrative data government already collects during the operation of programs should also be used for generating “evidence” through statistical activities, to better assess overall policy outputs and outcomes.

Importantly, with appropriate processes to protect confidentiality in place, privacy protections can be enhanced at the same time the use of data increases to generate more evidence about programs and policies. In providing increased access to government data, restrictions and qualifications for secure access are both necessary and essential.

Privacy protections can be enhanced at the same time the use of data increases to generate more evidence about programs and policies.

One of the major recommendations of the commission is to establish a National Secure Data Service (NSDS) to address the gap that exists today in making government’s data available, and also for combining different datasets temporarily to conduct research across policy domains. The NSDS is envisioned as a resource for qualified statisticians, researchers, and evaluators inside and outside government to securely access data for approved projects, without compromising the confidentiality of those data when results are made available. The NSDS is also intended to bring a new wave of transparency to the government’s data operations as more data are made available for evidence building.

The Ryan-Murray Commission recognized that inconsistent laws and processes can limit data access, sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes in ways that do not serve privacy well. To address this barrier, the commission recommended a number of changes to laws and policies to encourage when data are collected by government that they can be used for evidence building. One area that was highlighted was the need for better access to earnings and income data for evidence-building purposes. While the commission did not propose a single preferred solution, it indicated the tax data collected by the Internal Revenue Service as well as wage and earnings data collected by states are valuable for answering many questions policymakers have about government programs.

Modernizing Privacy Protections

In addition to applying privacy principles throughout data access mechanisms and processes, targeted improvements to privacy protections can be applied more broadly in government. By better assessing risks, coordinating data policies, and deploying privacy-protective technologies, government can simultaneously increase data access and strengthen privacy protections.

The commission specifically recommended that as a starting point all of government should do a better job at reducing the risk of information released publicly being used to inappropriately identify individuals. As more data are available publicly and computing power increases, the ability to re-identify individuals increases from datasets where direct identifiers (e.g., name, date of birth, address) have been removed. Other approaches may be needed to ensure confidential data remains confidential, and conducting a risk assessment prior to release of information is a small step government can take to ensure the American public is appropriately protected.

In addition, the commission included recommendations to ensure senior officials within government departments are appropriately coordinating data protection and management responsibilities as well as taking actions to encourage public trust in statistics by maintaining objectivity and integrity of federal statistics.  

Strengthening Government’s Evidence-Building Capacity

Even if data access is improved and privacy protections are strengthened, the capacity to implement evidence building initiatives must exist. The commission concluded that the federal government needs to strengthen its capacity to effectively generate evidence. To do so will require organizing experts and giving them sufficient support to deliver on the vision for more and better evidence in policymaking.

The Ryan-Murray Commission suggested aligning expertise that already exists today in a more logical way to support evidence-building activities.

Instead of recommending a massive expansion of government, the Ryan-Murray Commission suggested aligning expertise that already exists today in a more logical way to support evidence-building activities. One recommended strategy is to establish or designate a Chief Evaluation Officer in federal departments, recognizing a senior official within each agency to lead policy research and evaluation activities that are largely non-existent in many parts of government today.

The commission also recommended that federal departments develop learning agendas as a strategy for encouraging both the generation and use of evidence in policymaking. By engaging congressional staff and advocacy groups in a conversation about knowledge gaps for major policy decisions, a learning agenda can send clear direction to the statistical, research, and evaluation communities about where additional evidence is most needed and demanded.

Next Steps

Congress and the president created the Ryan-Murray Commission to develop a strategy for better generating and using evidence in our society. The commission delivered with a bipartisan and unanimous approach to accomplishing its charge. Evidence-based policymaking should be a bipartisan endeavor and the Ryan-Murray Commission has demonstrated that this can become reality.

Ryan and Murray announced on September 7 that they would introduce legislation called the “Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act” that will hopefully be a clear step toward realizing the strategy the commission developed and toward achieving the full promise of evidence-based policymaking.

KEYWORDS: PAUL RYAN, PATTY MURRAY, 115TH CONGRESS, KATHERINE ABRAHAM, RON HASKINS, EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING INITIATIVE