Obscured by the up-to-the-minute headlines and near-constant push notifications of a sensational election season, the unheralded work of the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-based Policy has quietly begun.

Signed into law in March, the act forming the Commission is a boon to champions of evidence-based policy across the political divide. What’s more, the law’s origin story—a rare instance of legislators working across the aisle in an effort to improve government—is a reminder that, despite our differences, collaboration toward a common purpose can build knowledge, strengthen policy, and potentially make life better for American families.

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Given the opportunity to work together in pursuit of solutions, this is a moment of great promise. But we know that the exception proves the rule—that these moments of cooperation are rarer than we’d like. Here’s why this opportunity is so important, and how the commissioners can make the most out of it:

Data matter most when they are used for research and evaluation

Our government collects data, and lots of it. All too often, however, the data serve merely for record-keeping: who lives where, who is entitled to what service, and who participates in what program. In many cases, people are asked the same questions for multiple record-keeping systems! That’s inefficient for the government and burdensome for us. The Commission’s most important job is to design ways that we can get more out of the data we are already collecting, in ways that protect the privacy of personal information. The Commission should engage with researchers who can show how making connections across administrative data sets can increase the power of data to answer questions that are important for policy decisions: researchers like Stanford’s Raj Chetty, who spoke to the commissioners at their first meeting about his experience linking data from a randomized study of housing vouchers with tax records to learn about the long-term effects of the voucher program, and about another study of administrative data that showed how upward mobility varies across the country and responds to government policy. Lessons learned about the ways that researchers use administrative data, and the barriers they encounter, will help the Commission recommend how data can be connected and shared in ways that are efficient, relatively low-cost, and ready for research.

Data can improve policy when used to create research evidence

The power of data is maximized when data are used to create research evidence. More than semantics, the difference between data and research evidence is fundamental: data are ingredients; research evidence is the meal. We create research evidence when we apply systematic scientific methods to address a stated hypothesis, question, or problem. Here’s one way to think about the relationship between data and research evidence: Say a school district in Chicago finds that many of its high-school students are not graduating on time. The graduation rate is a data point, but it does not indicate why the problem exists or what to do about it. But when a research team at the University of Chicago asks, “How might the district intervene in improving graduation rates?” and works to connect and analyze multiple sources of data to answer that question, they may find relationships, themes, and trends that help leaders respond to challenges or design interventions. This is just how the Consortium for Chicago School Research used district data to identify predictors for academic outcomes and developed tools to help school leaders understand how to support students. The Commission can foster evidence-based solutions to help families and communities by taking a broad view of the types of research studies that can be carried out with administrative data, and laying the groundwork for those studies inside and outside of government.

Partnerships can improve the quality and relevance of research

Just as the researchers at the University of Chicago learned from the needs and questions of district leaders in order to develop the On-Track indicator, the Commission can learn from the experiences of researchers the best ways to structure and provide access to data, and administrators at state and local levels can learn to interpret evidence in ways that inform their programs. This type of back and forth, which is essential to producing relevant and useful evidence, can be made possible by formal partnerships, which multiply capacity by bringing together different perspectives. Getting the most out of existing data will be a remarkable first step toward more effective government and smarter policy, and this progress can be built upon and sustained in years ahead by looking to the collaborative spirit of the Commission and considering the valuable role of partnerships in the future of evidence-based policy.

An opportunity not to be missed

Following the Commission’s first meeting last month, the clock is now winding down to October 2017, when the members are scheduled to deliver their findings to Congress.

But much can change in a year. It’s unclear what the federal government will look like next fall. What might come of the Commission’s recommendations is anyone’s guess. We do know, however, that this is an opportunity that doesn’t come every year, and may not come again. Let’s make the most of it. We hope that the Commission can not only serve as a model of collaboration toward common purpose, but that its work signals the beginning of a supportive infrastructure for the production and use of research in public policy.

Adam Gamoran is president of the William T. Grant Foundation.  Thaddeus Ferber is vice president of policy advocacy at the Forum for Youth Investment.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.