Let the evidence have its day in policymaking
© The Hill

While a recurring media storyline insinuates that everything in Washington is broken, a quiet, bipartisan revolution has gotten underway to promote the use of evidence for improving public policy and making government more effective. In fact, the first years of the next presidential administration could usher in a new era of evidence-based policymaking through access to a massive knowledge base — the results of numerous experiments launched by this White House that will finally be ready for release. But depending on the outcome of the November election, they may never see the light of day, and that would be a tremendous loss.

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Decades ago, an aggressive movement was initiated to link policy and resource allocations to program effectiveness. The Government Performance and Results Act of 1992 under the Bill ClintonBill ClintonAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE administration and the Performance Assessment Rating Tool under President George W. Bush established requirements for federal agencies to measure and report agency and program performance. They built a critical infrastructure for future performance monitoring and use of data for program improvement.

The Obama administration picked up the mantle and ran with it, transforming spending and decision-making processes of the federal government and its state and local partners. For example, a 2013 executive order required "open data," making government information readily available on the internet. The administration also pushed for "top tier evidence" and introduced competitions for federal innovation dollars.

In March 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed the bipartisan Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act, sponsored by U.S. House Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Gun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker Tim Murphy to retire at end of term MORE (R-Wis.) and U.S. Senator Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayChildren’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Schumer calls for attaching ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance MORE (D-Wash.), that aims to get policymakers the information and data that will help them make better decisions about what programs are working for the American public.

Federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education are collaborating to revamp programs in ways that build on the existing evidence. They then subject those programs to rigorous evaluations of their implementation, impacts and cost-effectiveness. For example, these agencies are partnering to experimentally test new program models for delivering education and training to unemployed youth and adults in sectors with growing demand for workers, with the goal to pave pathways for career advancement and wage growth. Some of the early results of these evidence-based programs, such as the WorkAdvance program, are strikingly favorable: nearly 20 percent increases in earnings for participants, including for the long-term unemployed, and reduced use of public assistance. We are waiting on more findings for a range of other programs that aim to increase self-sufficiency among hard-to-employ groups, such as disconnected youth and ex-offenders.

Preliminary results suggest real promise for the next generation of public programs, if the baton of evidence-based policymaking is not dropped by the next administration.

As a country, we can't afford to retreat from using data to inform our policymaking. And we need to get to the evidence in the upcoming electoral debates, with the hope that voters can make well-informed choices in November that advance one goal that we undoubtedly share: improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government.

Heinrich is a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.