Evidence Commission Recommendations Generate Pushback in House Hearing

A hearing today by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform appeared to generate more questions than support for the recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

The hearing’s four witnesses, all of whom served on the commission (including the chair and co-chair, Katharine Abraham and Ron Haskins), used their time to explain its 22 recommendations. However, the central purpose and value of those recommendations — to help build a national evidence base on federal programs and interventions to determine which work and which do not — did not seem to be clear to most of the members of the House committee.

Several Democrats used the occasion to criticize the Trump administration for policies that they felt were insufficiently evidence-based, including those on global warming and teen pregnancy prevention.  Republicans seemed skeptical that a new office — the proposed National Secure Data Service — was needed at the Commerce Department, expressing a traditional Republican small-government point of view.

The central bipartisan point, that evidence could enable federal agencies to achieve better outcomes at lower cost, seemed lost on most of the members of Congress who were present.

Fortunately, backing from the commission’s main supporters in Congress — House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray — is still likely to be strong enough to ensure that some form of “downpayment” legislation moves in the weeks ahead.


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Evidence Commission’s Proposed Data Service May Be Built in Stages

Additional details are beginning to emerge about next steps following the release last week of the final report of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

A hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, originally scheduled for September 12, has been postponed, possibly until September 27. The hearing was reportedly delayed because of hurricanes and resulting flight cancellations that prevented members of Congress from returning to Washington.

Despite the delay, the House is still expected to push forward a bill to implement some of the commission’s recommendations. At this time, it appears that this “downpayment” legislation will be attached to the Open Government Data Act (HR 1770, S 760), which commands bipartisan support in both chambers.

However, it also appears that the commission’s central recommendation — the creation of a National Secure Data Service to act as a liaison to pre-approved researchers who want access to federal data — will need to wait until a second bill moves in Congress later this year or next. Until that time, the Center for Administrative Records Research & Applications at the Census Bureau may be doing some of the initial work preparing for the new service.

During a call sponsored by Results for America earlier today, Katharine Abraham, the chair of the commission, affirmed the central importance of the proposed Data Service. Abraham and Ron Haskins, the co-chair, are meeting with stakeholders to support the commission’s recommendations.

Their work is being supported by the Bipartisan Policy Center.  Results for America and others are also drumming up support on Capitol Hill.


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Congress Expected to Act on Evidence Commission Recommendations

The House and Senate are reportedly readying legislation that will adopt at least some of the recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which released its final report earlier today.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, who sponsored legislation creating the commission, both indicated at today’s event that further legislation is being drafted to implement some of the commission’s recommendations. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has scheduled a hearing next Tuesday, September 12.  Legislation could move as early as the next two weeks.

The commission’s report includes 22 recommendations (see below) to increase evaluator access to data while simultaneously protecting privacy. The commission’s recommendations were approved unanimously by all 15 commissioners. Its members were appointed by congressional and administration leaders of both political parties, with five commissioners serving as experts on privacy.

The commission’s efforts on privacy drew particular praise at today’s event. Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, complimented the commissioners for the report’s “depth on privacy issues.”

The centerpiece of the commission’s recommendations is a proposal to create a new office that would act as a liaison to pre-approved researchers, helping them gain access to high-quality data sets. The office, called the National Secure Data Service, would be housed at the Commerce Department alongside the Census Bureau.

At least two bills appear likely to flow from the recommendations. The first, expected to move as early as this month, would include at least some of the commission’s least controversial items. More controversial proposals, which could involve changes to data and privacy laws, would be addressed in other legislation later this year or next.

At this point, it is unclear which recommendations will be included in the first bill. The proposed National Secure Data Service seems to be a high-priority item, since it would allow the service to staff up while Congress considers additional measures. However, it is unclear if the office will make it into the bill that is expected to move this month.

Other items are likely to be fleshed out in coming months. At today’s announcement, the commission co-chairs also announced that, although the commission itself has expired with the completion of its report, the Bipartisan Policy Center will be providing staffing support for further work.

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Trump Budget Uses Research Evidence to Justify Spending Cuts

President Trump’s full budget proposal for the coming federal fiscal year (FY 2018), which was released earlier today, has shown that evidence can be used not just to justify increased funding for programs that work, but also to cut funding for those that the administration says do not.

During the Obama administration, evidence was typically used for continuous improvement purposes or to shift funding from low performing programs to others that seemed more promising. At the time, conservative analysts criticized the administration for failing to use evidence to reduce the size of government.

For better or for worse, this can’t be said of the new Trump budget, which recommends substantial cuts in Medicaid, SNAP, and several other federal safety net programs. Many of the proposed cuts, which are included in a list of major savings and reforms, are justified by citing what the administration says is insufficient evidence of impact.

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Congress Set to Defund Social Innovation Fund

An omnibus appropriations package that Congress is slated to vote on later this week contains no funding for the Social Innovation Fund.  Barring any last minute changes, this may be the end of the road for this signature evidence-based program.

According to a Politico story about the overall package, it appears likely to be enacted as-is:

The bill clocks in at more than 1,600 pages and Congress must pass it before Friday evening to avert a shutdown, though the bill is likely to pass easily because it contains key boosts to defense and domestic programs viewed by leaders in both parties as vastly preferable to another stopgap measure.

SIF has achieved a number of successes since it was created in 2009. It has also served as a major platform for federal support for pay for success. In the end, however, it was probably too closely associated with President Obama to survive in a Washington controlled by Republicans.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the program would likely be forced into wind down mode.  The fate of existing SIF-funded projects, all of which had at least some funding from other sources, is less clear.

Other evidence-based initiatives in the appropriations bill fared better:

Trump Administration on Evidence

Despite the disappointing news on SIF, the Trump administration has taken some other positive steps on evidence-based policy. In an April 12 memo from OMB, the White House reaffirmed its commitment to the use of evidence in the budget. Key language from the memo is below:

Build and use a portfolio of evidence to improve effectiveness.  Agencies should propose strategies to use limited resources as smartly as possible by asking: what works, for whom, and under what conditions; whether programs are being implemented effectively; and how programs can be improved to produce better results. Evidence may include results from program monitoring and evaluations, performance measures, statistics, and other forms of research and analysis.

The administration’s commitment to evidence may be made more clear in its full budget request for the next fiscal year, which may be coming soon.

Update (5/5/17)
  The omnibus appropriations bill has been passed and signed into law. The Senate passed it on May 4, sending it on to the president, who signed it into law on May 5.

Posted in Evidence, Social Innovation Fund

Trump Administration Proposes Eliminating SIF, Cutting Teen Pregnancy Prevention; EIR Unaffected

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) and cutting the evidence-based Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program in a package sent to Congress covering the budget for the remainder of the current fiscal year, according to a report in Politico.

Congress must pass legislation funding federal agencies by April 28. Overall, the White House is proposing $18 billion in cuts across a variety of federal programs. The federal government is currently operating under a continuing resolution that was passed late last year.

The proposal also recommends cuts for several education programs, but the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program, the successor to i3, is not among them. Some have speculated that the EIR program is being preserved to help fund the administration’s student voucher initiative.

To become law, the proposals must be approved by Congress. However, according to Politico, those prospects appear to be poor:

[T]he latest request for cuts — which would be absorbed over the five months left in the fiscal year — could prove to be too little, too late from the White House. Lawmakers have indicated they are prepared to reject Trump’s calls to gut programs they deem important.

Nevertheless, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, “It is a strong signal to Congress of what programs the Administration is willing to cut and as such has implications not only for the current debate on the remainder of FY 2017 funding, but for FY 2018 appropriations.”

Language from the detailed proposal is below. The administration is proposing eliminating SIF and cutting spending on TPP by about half.

  • Social Innovation Fund: “The Social Innovation Fund is not authorized and it is not a member-based program, which puts it at odds with the larger mission of CNCS.  It would be better to build the evidence base for programs through the agencies with expertise in the types of interventions being funded rather than through an agency focused on national service.”
  • Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Program: “The TPP program is a competitive grant program that supports evidence-based innovative approaches to teen pregnancy prevention. This level would reduce funding to current TPP grantees by about half. State and local entities can use the evidence base built by the TPP program in their efforts to continue to reduce teenage pregnancy rates.”


Posted in Education, Evidence, Social Innovation Fund

OMB Memo Signals Possible Elimination of Social Innovation Fund

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is circulating a memo that targets nine federal programs for elimination by the Trump administration, one of which is the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that houses the Social Innovation Fund.

According to The New York Times, which broke the story on Friday, the list represents an opening salvo in a larger effort to reduce federal spending. The Senate confirmed President Trump’s OMB director, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), on Thursday.

The programs cited in the memo are:

  • Corporation for National and Community Service
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Legal Services Corporation
  • White House Office of National Drug Control Policy
  • Export-Import Bank
  • Overseas Private Investment Corporation
  • Appalachian Regional Commission

According to the story:

While the total amount of annual savings of roughly $2.5 billion would be comparatively small, administration officials want to highlight the agencies in their coming budget proposal as examples of misuse of taxpayer dollars. An internal memo circulated within the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday, and obtained by The New York Times, notes that the list could change. Proposals for more extensive cuts in cabinet-level agencies are expected to follow.

The chosen agencies have been asked to respond by Friday, February 24. The list is expected to be finalized by March 13.

The Social Innovation Fund does not appear to have been mentioned by name, but it has been targeted for elimination by congressional Republicans in previous years.  The program was always restored after negotiations with the Obama administration.  The Senate may play a similar role in this year’s expected budget battles.  While Republicans control both the House and the Senate, appropriations bills can be filibustered in the Senate.

Many of the programs on the list have also been highlighted for reductions or elimination by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has been influential with the new administration. According to the New York Times story:

Stephen Moore, another Heritage Foundation economist who advised Mr. Trump during his campaign, acknowledged that powerful constituencies were behind many of the programs that are on the chopping block. But he said now that Republicans are finally in control of the government, they must make a valiant effort to fulfill the promises they have been making to voters for years.

“I think it’s an important endeavor to try to get rid of things that are unnecessary,” Mr. Moore said. “The American public has a lot of contempt for how government is run in Washington, in no small part because there is so much waste.”

Results for America is currently circulating a sign-on letter among interested organizations on the Social Innovation Fund and other evidence-based programs. For more information, contact Jeremy Ayers at jeremy(at)results4america.org.


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School Improvement Grant Program’s Failure Points to Evidence-based Policy as an Answer

Last month Mathematica Policy Research released a tough report on the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants (SIG) program. The conclusion? After $7 billion spent, the program had no effect on student achievement in some of the nation’s most poorly performing schools.

The study’s results spurred a round of “I told you so” responses from some analysts, including Andrew Smarick of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who suggested that SIG might be the “greatest failure in the history of the U.S. Department of Education.” According to Smarick:

The results are almost too much to believe. How in the world do you spend billions and billions of dollars and get no results—especially after Secretary Duncan promised it would turn around 5,000 failing schools and hailed it as the biggest bet of his tenure?

Probably the only thing more remarkable than the scope of this program’s failure is that this outcome was absolutely, positively, unavoidably predictable.

Smarick had previously argued that the answer was to close poorly-performing schools (which was one of the options under SIG, although it was rarely used) and start from scratch. Smarick pointed to successful charter school networks like KIPP as a more promising alternative.

Is Smarick right?  Are turnaround efforts a complete waste of time and money?

Probably not.  There are plenty of reasons to think that this conclusion is premature. First, the Mathematica study’s conclusions do not quite paint the definitive picture of failure among school turnarounds that has been widely reported.  Second, there have been other examples of success in the turnaround space that are not associated with SIG.

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Trump OMB Nominee May Support Reworked Evidence-based Budget Tool

President Trump’s nominee to head OMB, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, indicated at two different Senate hearings on January 24 that he will consider reviving the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), which the Bush administration used to examine the effectiveness of federal programs. The prior Bush effort substantially incorporated evidence into its reviews.

According to Government Executive:

[Senator] Portman praised George W. Bush’s Program Assessment Rating for measuring the performance of federal initiatives and tying the results to spending, saying PART was “an enormous undertaking that some thought too time-consuming. But the result was that some programs had their budgets increased, some decreased, and some were eliminated.”

Mulvaney said he admired the quantitative data that PART supplied, adding that “ending PART denied us a tool, and I’m looking forward to adding management tools.”

Reviving PART is a priority for the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has been working closely with the incoming Trump administration.

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