Critics have long complained that very little US policy is backed by rigorous evidence.
A few years ago, a bipartisan panel estimated that only 1 percent of federal government spending "is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely." Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution has argued that "75 percent of programs or practices that are intended to help people do better at school or at work have little or no effect."
Regardless of the precise numbers, the core point is that policymakers aren't using research evidence to make sure taxpayer-funded programs actually work — and they don't always learn from their mistakes to design more effective ones.
This is what makes a bipartisan bill that just got introduced in Congress so interesting. It's called the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2015, and it's being backed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).
The idea behind the bill is simple: The federal government already collects tons of data and information about the various programs and policies it runs. This proposed bill would set up a commission of 15 experts from a variety of fields who will examine this data and figure out how to make it more accessible to researchers — so that policymakers can actually harness it to evaluate what works and what doesn't, and create more helpful policies and programs going forward.
"By coordinating data across federal programs and tax expenditures, and giving researchers greater access to that data, federal agencies would gain a better grasp of how effective they are, and lawmakers would gain a better grasp of how to improve them," according to Ryan’s website.
This "clearinghouse" of administrative and survey data could then be used to do things like track federal health-care programs to see how they're improving people's health, or examine what impact a new education policy is having on kids learning and progress. The findings could then drive future policies.
The evidence-based proposal was embraced in Obama's budget
The bill was first introduced in Congress in November, but died before moving forward. It’s not clear that it’ll make it much further this time around, but it shows some promise. For one, it's sponsored by leaders from both parties. Second, it was embraced in Obama's 2016 budget as a proposal that "exemplifies the high-level and bipartisan momentum for doing more to tap this important resource [the use of data to improve federal programs]."
There are, naturally, suspicions about the bill’s motives: Some on the left suspect the initiative is just a Trojan horse to cut spending; others on the right worry that data will be used to determine how to get more people into government programs.
But using evidence and data to inform policymaking isn't some fantastical idea — in other parts of the world, it's quickly becoming the norm.
The UK, for example, established data.gov.uk, a nicely designed and easily searchable clearinghouse of government data on policies and programs. In 2013, the UK government also launched the aptly named What Works Network: Instead of just applying science to policymaking, What Works runs real-time trials on new policies as they’re being implemented, and then feeds the evidence back into the network so it can be shared across government departments.