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Evidence Use in Congress: Options for Charting a New Direction

By Nick Hart, Sandy Davis, Tim Shaw, G. William Hoagland

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

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Lawmakers in Congress have expressed a growing interest in the promise of evidence-based policymaking. Bipartisan legislation has been pursued in Congress that would encourage the use of evidence to improve outcomes for key education, health, workforce, and other federal programs. These past legislative initiatives suggest growing potential for the wider use of evidence to better inform congressional decision-making in the future. However, key challenges remain for fostering a stronger culture of evidence in Congress. This stronger culture will be necessary to fully realize the potential benefits of evidence-based policymaking.

While numerous barriers exist to congressional use of evidence in decision-making, numerous options exist to enable greater use of evidence—systematically collected data that have been analyzed with rigorous research methods to provide insights about how policies and programs operate.

While numerous barriers exist to congressional use of evidence in decision-making, numerous options exist to enable greater use of evidence—systematically collected data that have been analyzed with rigorous research methods to provide insights about how policies and programs operate.

Through a two-volume report, Evidence Use in Congress, BPC describes the challenges and offers options for improving the use of evidence in the legislative branch. Volume 1 identifies three key areas of solutions that address congressional barriers to using evidence.

Volume 2 presents 19 options that aim to align the use of evidence in Congress with its institutions, practices, and norms. The options could help encourage more use of relevant, timely, and credible evidence about federal policies and programs in congressional policy debates. The options are organized into three broad categories:

  • Congressional capacity enhancements focus on ways to enable and target resources for gathering and interpreting evidence.
  • Institutional modifications offer ideas for adapting Congress’ institutional structure to make the use of evidence in Congress and executive
    agencies more transparent.
  • Congressional process changes present options for how Congress could modify its processes to better enable members and staff to make
    evidence use a priority in routine operations.

The options presented in this report are not recommendations, but rather are intended to start a conversation about how Congress can organize itself to access and use evidence to improve its decision-making processes, and ensure that federal programs function as effectively and efficiently as possible. Members of Congress, their staff, and the American public must determine an appropriate strategy for enabling a culture of evidence and discouraging the dissemination of false or misleading information about government policies. This paper provides a starting point for those interested in encouraging Congress to make better use of evidence in policymaking.

Now is the time for Congress to take a thoughtful and serious look at how it makes decisions, and to strengthen the culture of evidence in Congress. 

Now is the time for Congress to take a thoughtful and serious look at how it makes decisions, and to strengthen the culture of evidence in Congress. Creating a wider culture of evidence in Congress will strengthen its capacity to effectively carry out important legislative duties in a 21st century policy environment, and can begin to restore the trust of the American public in its government institutions.

KEYWORDS: 115TH CONGRESS, COMMISSION ON EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING, EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING INITIATIVE

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