Opportunity is knocking: Create an evidence-based culture with new policymaking law

Last week, President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation to codify several important recommendations of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. Those recommendations are designed to strengthen the use of rigorous evidence to improve government’s results and are based in part on current practices among leading agencies.

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act could become just one more failed effort on the trash heap of management reform efforts that have come before it. Or it could become the catalyst for greatly increasing the use of insights into program effectiveness and dramatically improving government’s performance. If you’re a government leader, it’s your choice!

The new law requires federal agencies to:

  • Designate evaluation officers;
  • Produce evidence-building plans that would align research and evaluation efforts to key questions policymakers want answered;
  • Name chief data officers;
  • Publicly release inventories of their data sets; and
  • Ensure the data they are using and sharing is protected from inappropriate disclosure of personally identifiable information.

All of these things can help set the stage for a new culture of evidence-based decision making in agencies.

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Evaluation officers can bring badly needed statistical and evaluation methodological expertise to agencies. They can collaborate among agency leadership to find out what we know about how well programs are working or, more importantly, what we don’t know. Once they develop a list of important questions for which the agency needs answers, evaluation officers help design and procure independent evaluations that answer the big questions. Finally, evaluation officers help agencies interpret evaluation results and drive their use in important decisions about programs that can result in greater results for the money we spend.

One of the major drivers of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act was the promise of greater access to data, so evaluations could be performed more quickly and less expensively. Required by the new law to have “experience in data management, governance (including creation, application and maintenance of data standards), collection, analysis, protection, use and dissemination” of data, chief data officers will be well-positioned to know what data agencies have and how to combine data sets to unlock insights into their programs.

Agencies have been doing this on an ad hoc basis for decades; now the new chief data officers council can be a forum for greatly expanding the sharing and use of data for evidence building purposes.

Of course, with more data sharing comes greater risk of inappropriate release of personally identifiable information or other information that shouldn’t be disclosed. The new law includes robust provisions to modernize and strengthen the practices in place to protect against this inappropriate disclosure. Americans must be able to trust that their data won’t be misused or wrongfully released; the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act is a strong first step in restoring that trust.

So, what would a leader intent on making a difference with this new law do first?

We have a few ideas:

  1. Quickly hire or appoint individuals with the right skills and leadership qualities to assume the roles of evaluation officer and chief data officer. Don’t wait for Office of Management and Budget guidance or Office of Personnel Management’s new occupational series — name these positions soon so the work of evidence-building can begin.
  2. Connect agency leadership with your new evaluation officer to begin the process of determining which questions will make up the learning agenda. Agencies have missions and goals—they should know what important outcomes they are trying to accomplish—so the challenge will be narrowing these questions to a critical few.
  3. Charge the evaluation officer with developing an inventory of available evidence, both inside and outside the agency, that may provide insights into these key questions.
  4. In collaboration with agency leadership and the chief data officer, launch evidence-building efforts, including with data analytics and independent evaluations, to answer the questions most in need of answers.
  5. Because building or strengthening an evidence-based culture is a long-term effort that won’t happen overnight, find other ways to reinforce the signal that data driven decision-making within your agency is important, valued and expected. That could include developing and publishing an evaluation policy that demonstrates your agency’s commitment to building evidence and using it to inform policy and practice.
  6. Finally, in the spirit of transparency, evaluation officers should report annually on the agency’s learning agenda and the extent to which stronger evidence is being developed and used by the agency’s leadership.

Opportunity is knocking in the form of a new law, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. Ambitious government leaders seeking to leave their mark and transform their agencies into more effective ones have a blueprint to do that.

Don’t wait.

The sooner you take action, the sooner you’ll see the impact of more evidence-based decision making.

Robert Shea, a former senior official with the  Office of Management and Budget, is a principal with Grant Thornton Public Sector. Robert Hahn is a senior policy fellow at Georgetown University and a visiting professor at Oxford University. Both were members of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

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