The cards are stacking up in a confusing and seemingly inconsistent way for the Trump administration on whether there is clear and unwavering support for evidence-based policymaking. Perhaps either the forthcoming President’s Management Agenda or the Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal will clarify the role of evidence and science in the administration. We hope so.
Using evidence to inform policymaking is not a partisan matter – it’s a basic requirement for good government, one so basic that most people think this already happens. But too often it doesn’t and is one contributing factor to low public trust in our country’s democratic institutions.
In September 2017, the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, now championed by the Bipartisan Policy Center, unanimously backed the use of more and better evidence in government. In November, the House of Representatives passed legislation (HR 4174) jointly filed by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) advancing some of the commission’s recommendations, and sent a bipartisan message that the country needs more capacity to generate evidence for policymakers.
The wide-ranging political support for generating more evidence about government policies then using that evidence to inform policy debates has been echoed by congressional Republicans and Democrats alike. In describing HR 4174 prior to the House vote in November, Speaker Ryan said, “The driving purpose of this legislation is very simple: we are requiring Federal agencies to prioritize evidence when they are measuring a program’s success.” Similarly, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) said that “It is time for government to move into the 21st century and start using the data it is collecting to improve the services it is providing.”
The use of evidence is not political, but fundamental for an effective government.
Congress started taking steps—with Republicans and Democrats working together—to advance dialogue about improving how decisions are informed by evidence and science in the country. But meaningfully advancing the cause of evidence-based policymaking in the federal government will require clear support from appointees and leaders in President Trump’s administration — and from the president himself.
So where does the Trump administration stand on the use of evidence and science? The record is mixed.
In March, the Trump administration appointed Nancy Potok, the career chief statistician of the United States and a former deputy director of the Census Bureau to fill a vacancy on the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Potok would later vote in favor of the recommendations of the commission. But no senior political official from the Trump administration has yet publicly indicated whether the Executive Branch will support the Ryan-Murray evidence legislation or, more broadly, the recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.
During April, reports about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggested deliberate attempts to limit the public’s access to certain climate data used to understand the effects of climate change, and this fall EPA announced restrictions on what individuals can serve on scientific advisory committees. By contrast, in other parts of EPA, longstanding work continues to evaluate the effectiveness of its enforcement activities.
In May, the Trump administration in its first budget proposal stated “an effective and efficient Federal government requires evidence,” but also eliminated certain programs long championed by evidence advocates, such as the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program at the Department of Health and Human Services.
In July, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued guidance for writing the Fiscal Year 2019 budget that said, “The Administration is committed to building evidence and better integrating evidence into policy, planning, budget, operational, and management decision-making.” But in December, reports about how the budget writing process is unfolding at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have raised concern, including from BPC, that the administration may be taking a different tack.
Just days before the news broke about CDC, Dustin Brown, a senior career staffer in the Office of Management and Budget told federal employees during an event at the General Services Administration that the Trump management agenda coming next spring will feature the use of data to support generating evidence. Similarly, Michael Kratsios, a deputy assistant to the president in the Office of Science and Technology Policy articulated at an event at HHS the need to support innovation and basic research in government.
As 2017 ends, it is clear Congress is willing to engage in improving the country’s evidence-based policymaking framework in a bipartisan manner. Hopefully the Trump administration will similarly demonstrate support for science and evidence in 2018, recognizing that the use of evidence is not political, but fundamental for an effective government.