Can Congress put evidence-based policymaking into practice?

A bipartisan commission wants the government to use program data to determine whether policies work, but there are political barriers.

data abstract

A bipartisan commission chartered by Congress recently delivered recommendations on using agency data to develop ways to evaluate the success or failure of federal programs.

The final report of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, released Sept. 6, calls on Congress to support the better use of government data by establishing a National Secure Data Service to house confidential  but essential program data. It also calls for creating the position of agency chief evaluation officer to support a statistically sound use of data.

Under the proposal, the NSDS would be established with the goal of facilitating access and securely linking to confidential data without a warehouse. The Service would use existing Census Bureau infrastructure.

While the commission, which was launched by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), was designed to operate above the political fray, it's clear from a Sept. 26 hearing that any implementation of the commission's recommendations is going to include partisan politics.

Katharine Abraham, chair of CEP and a professor at University of Maryland, told the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee that NSDS could help agencies analyze how their programs function, if certain data was "made available to researchers under strict confidentiality protections."

Abraham pointed to the current legal barriers to accessing data and inconsistency in confidentiality laws as an issue, noting that "the Commission found considerable variation in provisions governing data confidentiality and permissible uses of data." A number of "program agencies' authorizing statutes do not address data confidentiality and the use of data for evidence building at all," she said.

Rep. Steve Russell, (R-Okla.) was concerned that the data service would rely on Census infrastructure, pointing to the appearance of the census on the Government Accountability Office's High Risk List and "the longstanding problems with the Census Bureau when it comes to estimating costs." Russell also expressed a mistrust of the bureau's work extracting data.

Ron Haskins, CEP co-chair and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said, "the Census Bureau is already doing almost everything that we want the National Secure Data Service to do," from data analysis to security. "It makes sense to start with them.

Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) warned that while evidence-based policymaking was a laudable goal, he didn't think the current government held the same values.

"Frankly, when most people think of evidence-based policy making, they don't think of the current administration or recent actions by Congress," Cummings said, citing the administration's various statements on voter fraud, immigration policy and other matters that he said were not supported by available data. Cummings alleged that the Trump administration was spending taxpayer money to produce data to "match their political narrative."

"Boy, do I agree with the premise of your commission," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said, "but what is so troubling, frankly about the era in which we operate, is how easily  dismissed facts and evidence, measured facts are because of a-priori beliefs or because of denial. I don't want to accept that."

CEP is hoping not to wade into these kinds of political disputes. Its goals are more modest -- to create an operational framework in which evidence-based policymaking can be pursued. To this end, it is recommending that Congress amend the Privacy Act and extend the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act framework.

This would "enable the National Secure Data Service to acquire and combine survey and administrative data collected by other agencies," Abraham said in her prepared statement.

"Limitation on how data can be used does reduce accountability," said Abraham. "It does reduce our ability to understand what we're getting for the federal dollars we’re spending."