What Does the Federal Evidence Infrastructure Look Like?

What is needed at the federal level to expand the use of evidence?  Where are we?  What else do we need to do? Earlier this month, the Forum for Youth Investment released a very good report that answers these questions.

The report, Managing for Success: Strengthening the Federal Infrastructure for Evidence-based Policymaking, does an excellent job describing the existing infrastructure. It breaks this information out across five types of evidence (data, statistics, evaluation, performance metrics, and social and behavioral sciences) and six infrastructure components (White House, interagency, and agency offices plus policies, guidebooks, and assistance to state and local governments).

Compiling all of this information in one place — mostly in the appendices — was a useful endeavor all by itself. The paper also includes multiple recommendations for improvement — recommendations that take on added relevance because they appear to be rooted (at least in part) in interviews, recommendations, and feedback from federal officials.

The paper was released at the same time as the final report of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, although the Forum’s paper seems broader than the Commission’s work, which focused primarily on making data more accessible to researchers.

What were some of the Forum paper’s more notable recommendations? One suggested that evidence is too often viewed in terms of what works and what does not, with associated implications for program budgets. Instead, the paper recommends greater use of budget-neutral strategies.

According to the paper:

Perhaps more problematically, such use creates a backlash against evidence itself. There are cases in which Congress has responded to a negative evaluation of a popular program by passing legislation prohibiting any future evaluations of it. As one federal official noted, “we have a history in which negative results on an evaluation can mean that the money goes away. But the problem you are trying to solve has not gone away. The ‘fear factor’ is real for programs—if anyone fears that the information will be used to kill their program, the learning won’t happen.” …

Fortunately, there are two approaches to using evidence that are revenue neutral and therefore have the potential to be scalable.

The first is shifting funding from programs that evidence suggests do not work to programs that evidence suggests do work, for the same population and issue area …

The second approach is to use evidence to spend the exact same amount of money on the exact same program but to encourage or require changes to the program that will make it more efficient and effective.

This approach, which the paper suggests should be used by both OMB and Congress in budget development, seems to mirror what the Obama administration did with evidence. That approach was criticized by some on the right, however, for not cutting back programs that are not effective. So far, the Trump administration seems to be taking a harder line.

The other recommendations range from technical to familiar (for example, the paper echoes previous recommendations to create chief evaluation officers in federal agencies and set aside 1% of program funds for evaluations). Nevertheless, the paper serves as a good companion piece to the Evidence Commission’s work.

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