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Facts, data and evidence still matter

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Americans are becoming more polarized. A series of polls conducted by the Pew Research Center this year show growing partisan divides across a range of topics, including the value of higher education, concern over climate change and the fairness of our tax code. But while polarization seems to persist across many issues, new survey data show that Americans agree that a more effective and efficient government is a good thing. 

Earlier this year, Results for America – a group that develops and promotes evidence-based policy – commissioned a nationally representative survey by NORC at the University of Chicago. It found that Americans overwhelmingly support more effective and efficient government. Eighty-nine percent of Americans think policymakers should seek out the best evidence when putting their policies in place, and 86 percent are either very likely or somewhat likely to back a candidate who shifts funding based on whether a program has been shown to work. 

Unlike so many other policy topics, support for using evidence and data in government decision-making doesn’t seem to fall along ideological lines. Among the questions in the survey, responses were nearly identical across Democrats and Republicans. For example, 87 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement “Do you think government should shift dollars toward programs that work and away from those that consistently fail to achieve desired outcomes?”

But while almost all Americans support government policy based on evidence and data, few think we have it. Over three-fourths of Americans think that policy decisions are driven by either the influence of lobbyists (34 percent) or desire to boost politicians’ popularity (42 percent). Just 8 percent think policy decisions are driven by evidence about what works. 

The good news for supporters of evidence-based policy is that government is making remarkable strides is this area. Most notably, late last year Congress passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which will both make it easier for federal agencies to evaluate whether their programs are working and enable private researchers to access data for evaluations. 

Congress has also inserted strong evidence provisions in several significant new laws during the last few years. Since 2015, for example, Congress has passed landmark bipartisan legislation that is helping to identify and invest in what works in K-12 education (the Every Student Succeeds Act), foster care (the Family First Prevention Services Act), juvenile justice (the Juvenile Justice Reform Act) and opioid prevention, treatment and care (SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act).

It’s not just the federal government, either: Cities are embracing evidence-based policy with open arms. Over the past few years, more than 150 mayors have participated in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative to help make cities more focused on evidence and outcomes. This often means cities taking remarkably innovative approaches to government services, like the Lab @ DC in Washington, D.C., which is staffed by applied research scientists charged with measuring the impact of the city’s policies in real-time and helped the city achieve gold What Works Cities Certification in 2019. Then there’s the Urban Data Pioneers volunteer program established by Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, where government workers and local residents volunteer their free time to develop new tools and applications that address a wide range of city challenges identified through data analysis. 

State governments are also deeply invested in using evidence-based policy to get better results. The 2018 Invest in What Works State Standard of Excellence found 88 leading and promising data and evidence practices in 30 states across the country. For example, Washington State saved tens of millions of dollars by bringing together health and social service data from 10 state agencies. 

Although the growing ideological divide in our country can be disheartening, these recent polling results provide hope that Americans want policymakers to use facts and data when investing taxpayer dollars. Even if we can’t agree on the facts, at least we still agree that they matter. 

Benjamin Harris is chief economist and senior adviser at Results for America. He previously served as chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.


Tags bipartisan Bloomberg Evidence-based policy Joe Biden Pew Research Center Tulsa Washington state

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