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Evidence Use in Congress

The enduring climate of intense political polarization and substantial distrust of government in the United States offers a valuable indicator that our government is not doing everything it can to serve the public interest. How can government both continually improve and be held accountable for meeting the expectations of the American public and its leaders? Increased use of evidence-based policymaking offers one promising answer to this question.

Evidence-based policymaking holds the potential to help restore elements of public trust in government and improve how government programs operate. Evidence refers to systematically collected data that have been analyzed with rigorous research methods to provide insights about how policies and programs operate. Evidence-based policymaking is the process through which evidence is applied to inform decisions about government policies and programs.

Regularly using evidence is an essential element for increasing the effectiveness of government programs. Without evidence, it is difficult to know whether antipoverty programs reduce poverty, if economic development initiatives promote growth, and what policies can most effectively combat the opioid epidemic. Evidence about whether a policy or program was effectively implemented or achieved its intended outcomes enables policymakers to improve initiatives by implementing promising models and effectively targeting taxpayer funds.

Congress has a key role in furthering the use of evidence in policymaking throughout the federal government. Congress provides the funds for agencies to generate evidence, structures federal programs through legislation, and can signal that the use of evidence is a priority.

Today, far too little is known about how well and in what contexts government policies and programs achieve goals and how they can be improved. The 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking concluded that the evidence needed for informing policy decisions is too often simply not available. This means that even lawmakers who want to use evidence often struggle to successfully deploy what limited evidence does exist to inform important policies. Further, information processing has become increasingly complex, challenging, and partisan within Congress. Congress is virtually never the producer of evidence, and so it must provide mechanisms and resources throughout the legislative and executive branches, or outside government, to support its objective information needs.

In Evidence Use in Congress, a two-volume report, BPC considers the challenges faced by the legislative branch in using evidence, and offers potential solutions for more readily using evidence to inform key decisions. This is not to say that Congress never uses evidence—that is far from the case. But Congress’ uses should be more routine and there is much room for progress.

Challenges for Evidence-Based Policymaking

Volume 1 provides an overview of the processes and mechanisms involved in congressional decision-making and outlines challenges faced by Congress in routinely using evidence in legislative actions.

The volume frames three key barriers to the routine use of evidence in Congress:

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  • Perception – Perception barriers occur when evidence exists on a policy, but policymakers perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the evidence is not useful, not credible, or not relevant to the decision at hand.

  • Institutional – Institutional barriers exist when the structure of Congress, including its decision-making process and staffing structure, impede the ability of policymakers to obtain evidence or cause evidence to compete with other priorities when making a decision.

  • Systemic – Systemic barriers describe the norms, processes, and day-to-day procedures of Congress that can affect whether relevant evidence is available and usable for policymakers when they need it. It also describes how those factors affect their incentives to use that evidence.

Options for Charting a New Direction

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.

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