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Policymaking commission offers a glimmer of hope in hyper-partisan Washington

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While Washington has been consumed by President Trump’s dealmaking with top Democrats on DACA and the debt ceiling, another major bipartisan breakthrough went largely overlooked.

With little fanfare, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking — a group of social scientists, data experts and former government officials — just concluded 15 months of public hearings and careful deliberations by releasing its final report with nearly two dozen recommendations to improve how the federal government collects and uses data to make decisions. Every member of the commission, both Democratic and Republican appointees, signed the report.

By the standards of today’s Washington, the fact that the commission was created at all was a triumph. The bipartisan panel was established through legislation sponsored by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), unanimously passed the House and Senate, and signed into law by President Obama in March 2016. Leaders from opposing parties put down their swords for a moment to embrace the shared belief that government can improve the lives of Americans by harnessing the power of data and evidence. As Murray put it, “Whether you think we need more government or less government, you should agree that we should at least have better government.”

{mosads}It might seem obvious that the federal government, which spent almost $3.9 trillion last year, would want to know whether it was spending this money effectively. But as two former Office of Management and Budget directors — one who served under President George W. Bush, the other who served under President Obama — we witnessed firsthand how rarely federal programs are rigorously evaluated to determine whether they are achieving the results that the American people deserve.


That’s why it’s so refreshing to see the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking lay out a bold vision for seizing on the rapid advances in technology and data analytics to create more and better evidence about the effectiveness of our public investments.

This vision includes a new National Secure Data Service that would make data available to qualified researchers — to help inform the policymaking process — while setting the most stringent standards and legal safeguards to protect privacy and data security.

The commission also called for a chief evaluation officer at every federal agency to examine the effectiveness of federal programs, as well as “learning agendas” to drive a thoughtful approach to the gathering and analysis of data. In addition, the commission voiced its support for investing up to one percent of federal funds on evaluation — an idea backed by the Invest in What Works coalition — to ensure that the remaining 99 percent of funds are spent wisely.

The commission’s recommendations offer a bipartisan guide for cutting through the thicket of legal, bureaucratic and cultural barriers that hinder evidence-building activities across all levels of government. It is encouraging that Speaker Ryan and Senator Murray have already announced they will introduce legislation to enact many of the commission’s recommendations.

In an era of tight budgets and limited resources, it is more important than ever to maximize the impact of every dollar we invest. And we must remember that there is a human cost — not just a financial cost — when a job training program fails to lift families out of poverty or when an education initiative fails to help children succeed.

An “evidence-based” approach to policymaking means building evidence so we know what works. It means using that evidence — from researchers, policy experts and government analysts — to improve underperforming programs, to double down on successful investments, and to direct funding away from initiatives that fail to deliver year after year.

“Washington is just stuck in this endless feedback loop where we measure success based on effort, based on input,” Speaker Ryan recently said. “We ought to be able to get our policy focus on actually achieving the results we intend, not just hoping, but actually doing.”

In an increasingly toxic, dysfunctional and hyper-partisan Washington, this may be one of the few ideas we all can agree on.

Peter Orszag was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Obama. Former Congressman Jim Nussle (R-IA) was the director under President George W. Bush and a former chairman of the U.S House Budget Committee.

Tags Jim Nussle Office of Management and Budget Patty Murray Patty Murray Paul Ryan

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