Evidence and Policy Decisions: Report from American Enterprise Institute Event

By John Brezinsky January 28, 2020
<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >Evidence and Policy Decisions: Report from American Enterprise Institute Event</span>

The American Enterprise Institute hosted a fascinating event, exploring the work that has been done since the passage of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act.

Moderated by AEI Distinguished Fellow and former House Speaker Paul Ryan, three experts on using good data to inform policy described the current and future state of affairs. Nick Hart, the CEO of the Data Coalition brought an objective view of how data and its analysis can (and should) influence public policy. James Sullivan, Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame, described ways that his work at the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) is already using data from multiple sources to demonstrate what policies and practices genuinely improve the lives of Americans. Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission (whose recommendations led to the law), provided key insights into what has already been done in the arena.

Some key takeaways:

As we speak, agencies are working to implement the act in two main ways. The first is by creating learning agendas for themselves. What do they already know about the efficacy of the programs they support? What don’t they know, but would like to? The second is by hiring specifically for this kind of work, both full-time data evaluators and chief data officers to assist in the collection, distribution, and analysis of federal datasets across agencies.

Of particular interest for Government Affairs professionals: Paul Ryan’s statement that policymakers are more than a little skeptical of the data that lobbyists provide to them.

He actually used the phrase “cooked data” to illustrate his point that groups on opposite sides of an issue bring facts to back up their arguments, but these facts lead to remarkably different conclusions, so how can a policymaker know who to trust?

The consensus was that many groups bring data that is sometimes unduly biased, frequently cherry picked, and usually in direct opposition to the data that other groups bring.

The panel pointed to the need for all groups to get better at bringing more rigorous studies to back up their claims. Dr. Sullivan suggested that policymakers are slowly getting better at understanding different tiers of evidence, and reward it by listening more closely to people who show up with sold conclusions from transparent data. He used the Dept of Education as an example of an agency that uses quality of evidence in rating proposals for funding and grants.

Transparent Data

GA professionals already know that they are better able to influence policymakers when the data they bring is transparent and free of spin. This event was a stark reminder that the government is beginning to take real evidence of policy outcomes seriously. The entire lobbying profession can benefit from this by using a similar approach.

Mr. Haskins pointed to several other agencies that are making huge strides (or have a long tradition) in using rigorous evidence to guide their work. These included the CBO, the CRS, various agencies within HHS, and the GAO.

The administration has also released a 10-year plan for its data strategy. As Mr. Hart pointed out, 10 years is longer than any president will serve, so this is intended to be a multi-administration effort.

A major proposal that has not yet been taken up was for the creation of a national secure data service. This service would, when fully implemented, allow pre-vetted researchers to conduct analyses of data from different agencies. Many people might have assumed that this data was already available for analysis, but existing privacy concerns prevent it from happening.

Data Privacy Concerns 

On the privacy front, there is currently deep skepticism about the government’s ability to properly protect citizens whose data is collected by one agency from having their privacy violated if that data were made more broadly available. Worries about an Orwellian future where the government knows everything about everyone are quite real.

The entire panel agreed that these worries are unfounded, mainly because the goal of the national secure data service would be to primarily ensure that people’s privacy is protected. They described several steps that anonymize the data, while also allowing researchers to be able to cross-reference different data sets in order to point to the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of different federal programs.

Dr. Sullivan provided several examples of how this kind of cross-pollination of data can help families avoid homelessness, improve the outcomes of job training programs, and more.

People who are interested in the entire panel discussion and subsequent Q&A, can view the recording at the AEI’s website.

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