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Evidence Use in Congress: Challenges for Evidence-Based Policymaking

By Nick Hart, Sandy Davis, Tim Shaw

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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Evidence-based policymaking holds the potential to restore some of the lost public trust in America’s government institutions, including Congress. When evidence is used to make incremental changes to policies and programs, it can improve performance. The approach to collecting and using information about government policies and programs has been increasingly demanded in some parts of Congress, though its implementation today is not evenly applied throughout the institution.

Evidence-based policymaking holds the potential to restore some of the lost public trust in America’s government institutions, including Congress. When evidence is used to make incremental changes to policies and programs, it can improve performance.

Congress plays an important role in supporting a culture of evidence throughout the federal government. Notwithstanding substantial expertise and capacity to gather information through member offices, professional staff, and legislative support agencies, Congress’ use of evidence is imperfect. While some parts of Congress routinely rely on evidence, congressional decision-making processes, norms, and institutional structures pose challenges to the consistent use of evidence.

Evidence Use in Congress identifies 16 barriers facing congressional use of evidence in program authorizations, budget and appropriations processes, and oversight. The barriers fall into three broad categories:

  • Perception barriers include the perceived utility, inconsistent valuation, limited credibility, and unclear relevance of evidence.
  • Institutional barriers include those related to processes in Congress, such as collaborative decision-making, expertise, functional alignments, and coordination with the executive branch.
  • Systemic barriers stem from congressional processes and norms, and include challenges related to timing, supply, incentives, leaders, information sources, cognitive limits, and transparency.

In a two-volume report, Evidence Use in Congress describes the challenges and offers some options for creating a culture that enables the use of evidence in legislative activities. Volume 1 outlines three approaches to overcoming barriers to evidence-based policymaking in Congress. Volume 2 provides potential options to begin addressing these challenges throughout the legislative branch by prioritizing evidence, enabling greater transparency, and facilitating the role of brokers to enable the use of evidence.

Evidence Use in Congress describes the challenges and offers some options for creating a culture that enables the use of evidence in legislative activities. 

Members of Congress, their staff, and the American public must determine an appropriate strategy for enabling a culture of evidence in government institutions. This report provides a starting point for those interested in encouraging Congress to make better use of evidence.

KEYWORDS: EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING INITIATIVE

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