Articles Yes, There’s Hope for Good Government in the U.S.

Yes, There’s Hope for Good Government in the U.S.

A year ago this month – with little fanfare, and in the middle of the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history (35 days!) – the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act was signed into law.

It was more than a little ironic: A bipartisan bill to make the U.S. government work better became law against the backdrop of a bitter partisan dispute between the President and Congress over how to spend taxpayer dollars.

But one year later, the new law – better known by its shorthand, the Evidence Act – is quietly accelerating a transformation within U.S. federal agencies, putting evidence and data at the center of efforts to improve government.

The Evidence Act requires agencies to designate Chief Data Officers and Evaluation Officers, and to develop multi-year Learning Agendas and Evaluation Plans, ensuring that agencies have both the personnel and policies in place to better collect, share and use evidence and data in budget, policy and management decisions.

The law also directs federal agencies to create Open Data Plans and establishes a presumption that all U.S. government datasets should be made open (in machine-readable format) unless there is a national security reason that prevents disclosure. While improving access to data for policymakers, researchers and the public, the Evidence Act also includes strong protections to help safeguard citizens’ private information.

Although the implementation of the act is just beginning, there’s reason for early optimism. Federal agencies have been naming their CDO’s and Evaluation Officers. The White House Office of Management and Budget released guidance to support agency efforts. At many federal agencies, committed civil servants are treating the law as an opportunity for innovation rather than simply a check-the-box compliance exercise.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of State announced the launch of the Center for Analytics, the agency’s first official data and analytics hub to help strategically leverage its data. At the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, officials are using the Evidence Act to revamp the agency’s Research Roadmap and strengthen efforts to learn more about programs as a way to help improve them.

Smaller federal agencies are showing progress, too. The Corporation for National and Community Service, the U.S. government agency for national service and volunteering, released its evaluation plan and increased its investment in evaluations to over one percent of its annual budget. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a foreign assistance agency, invested over 5% of its annual budget on evaluation work and created easy-to-read evaluation briefs to showcase what’s working in global anti-poverty efforts. 

As a national not-for-profit organization devoted to improving results through evidence and data, Results for America is helping policymakers take the more difficult next step – to leverage what they’re learning from the evidence to shift public investments toward the most effective programs and policies. And we’re seeing some encouraging results. 

For example, thousands more students across the United States are getting access to evidence-based interventions because of a policy change at the Corporation for National and Community Service that prioritized evidence of effectiveness in the allocation of AmeriCorps national service funds. In Nevada, state education leaders steered over U.S. $200 million in federal and state education funds in one year toward results-driven solutions, which helped one rural school nearly double the number of third graders who were proficient in reading.

There’s much more U.S. policymakers can do to advance these efforts. They can learn from the best practices of other federal agencies, as highlighted in Results for America’s 2019 Investing What Works Federal Standard of Excellence. They can learn from the data-driven innovations of leaders in U.S. states and cities. And they can learn from the evidence-based efforts of other countries, which were promoted at the Evidence Works 2016 global forum co-hosted by RFA and the Alliance for Useful Evidence.

People from across the U.S. political spectrum want their government leaders to make decisions based on what works – not hunches or partisan politics. According to a recent poll, 89 percent of Americans think policymakers should seek out the best evidence when putting their policies in place. But the poll found that only 8 percent think government decisions about how to spend taxpayer dollars are currently driven by evidence of what works.

If policymakers seize on the promise of the Evidence Act and invest in the most effective solutions, they will not only improve results – they will help restore the public’s faith in government’s ability to tackle our biggest challenges.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.