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Paul Ryan and Patty Murray get credit for bipartisan policymaking

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Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on much these days, but there was a bright spot for bipartisanship recently. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray joined together to praise the recommendations of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission, which they launched last year.

The most important recommendations focus on making the most of the data the government already collects by giving qualified researchers, including academics as well as evaluation experts within government, greater access to data from government programs and surveys, while at the same time strengthening privacy protections to ensure that those data are not misused.

{mosads}Data are essential for understanding what’s working or not in government. Like food for our bodies, data are the fuel that generates insights about how to improve the effectiveness and cost efficiency of public programs and policies. Too often today, however, access to those data is so restricted and cumbersome that important questions of government effectiveness don’t get examined, and information that would improve outcomes is not available to program managers and policymakers. When that happens, taxpayers lose, and so do the people served by public programs, including the most vulnerable in our society.

Put it this way: Could you imagine a company like Apple or Amazon not using their data to continually improve their operations, cost effectiveness and overall results? No way. But that is often the case in government. The reason stemmed from legitimate concerns about data privacy, which led to severe restrictions on using and linking government datasets. But technology has evolved. There are now standard ways to provide access to data for program evaluation and policy analysis while carefully protecting privacy.

The best way to understand why expanding access to data is important is to see the benefits that have occurred when data have been accessible. A good example is our nation’s effort to address chronic homelessness. Researchers, often working in partnership with government agencies like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, used data to better understand the dynamics and cost implications of homelessness. That led to a body of rigorous research demonstrating the benefits of permanent supportive housing, which combines long-term housing assistance with supportive services. The resulting shift in strategy by government to that approach has been credited with helping reduce chronic homelessness nationally by more than 25 percent since 2010.

So how could you describe the goal of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission’s data recommendations in a nutshell? They are designed to catalyze more examples like in the homelessness policy, where researchers and practitioners used data to find better ways to tackle important challenges in our nation. The commission has other useful recommendation as well, beyond increasing data access. That includes calling for every federal department to have a chief evaluation officer to help coordinate program evaluation activities. Another recommendation is that every department creates a learning agenda, meaning a list of priority questions that could be addressed with research and evaluation to better achieve the department’s mission.

Those two strategies, adding a chief evaluation officer and creating learning agendas, were used by the Department of Labor during the Obama administration and helped strengthen a culture of learning and continuous improvement within the department. Prior to that, in fact, the U.S. Department of Education added a “chief evaluation office” called the Institute of Education Sciences during the George W. Bush administration. The institute has played a key role in helping that department use and build credible, nonpartisan evidence about what works in education policy. The commission’s recommendations are designed to bring these types of advances to a broader set of federal departments.

What are the chances that the commission’s vision of a more results-focused federal government becomes a reality? We are optimistic, given the bipartisan nature of the commission’s recommendations and the backing of high profile champions like Ryan and Murray. The most likely opposition to the recommendations would come from privacy advocates, but the commission smartly paired calls to expand data access with equally detailed recommendations about strengthening privacy protections. So far the reaction from the privacy experts has been positive.

Opposition could also come from state level decision makers who might oppose sharing data from federally funded (but state administered) programs with the federal government, not for political reasons, but because it involves extra costs. Hopefully that potential opposition will be tempered by the fact that states have a lot to gain from broader access to data because they are the ones who implement most federal programs, and face challenges in program evaluation and improvement due to outmoded data regulations. If states can better harness data to improve those programs, it is their own residents who will benefit the most.

In the end, the commission’s recommendations will become a reality if enough public leaders stand up for the use of data and evidence to help guide decisions with our public dollars. Without data and evidence, it is the status quo, the loudest voice, or the most powerful lobby that will win the day. The goal of evidence-based policymaking, including the commission’s recommendations, is to ensure that data and evidence have a seat at the table, helping guide decisions towards the public interest.

Maria Cancian is a professor of public affairs and social work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She served as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration.

Robert Doar is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously served as commissioner of human resources for New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and as commissioner of social services for the state of New York under Governor George Pataki.

Andrew Feldman is the host of the Gov Innovator podcast. He served as a special advisor on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration.

Tags Congress legislation Patty Murray Patty Murray Paul Ryan Paul Ryan Policy Research United States

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