State of evidence-based policymaking under Trump: 'Bad'

Former officials say a bipartisan movement to support the use of statistical evidence in government policymaking isn't advancing under the Trump administration despite big-name legislative backing.

Data analytics
 

At a July 19 event hosted by the Brookings Institution, President of the William T. Grant Foundation Adam Gamoran described the status of evidence-based policymaking in the Trump administration as "bad."

Most former government officials at the event said that while more statistics and information are available than ever before, that evidence is often not factored into policymaking.

Grover Whitehurst, who served in the Department of Education under President George W. Bush, added that while statistical entities are still producing information and state and local levels are interested, "I don't see much demand in the executive branch for evidence like previous administrations."

Under the Bush and Obama administrations, the Office of Management and Budget "was very powerful at advancing the evidence movement," Whitehurst said. "I don't see that happening now."

That tone has made its way to the agencies themselves. "I think there's less interest in the cabinet-level in using evidence than there used to be," he said. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was reportedly banned from using the words "evidence-based" and "science-based" in its budget documents.

George Overholser, president and founder of Third Sector Capital Partners, noted that the costs of getting "good, interpretable" data is "dropping by orders of magnitude," and he specifically cited census data as a foundation for statistical analysis for scientific and commercial research.

Gamoran noted the use of evidence to make policy "is pretty bad, but not completely bad." He noted that there are pockets of evidence-based policymaking. For example, the administration's fiscal year 2019 budget has a chapter on "building and using evidence to improve government efficiency" that includes strategies to strengthen evidence and improve data access.

In Congress, there are also efforts to codify evidence-based policymaking. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sponsored a bill to require chief data officers at agencies and establish a National Secure Data Service to focus on data security, sharing and minimizing personal information collection. The bill passed the House but hasn't had a hearing in the Senate.

Additionally, the omnibus spending package passed in March boosted the funding of various statistical agencies, and research and development funding was appropriated at all-time high levels.

In his remarks, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) emphasized the importance of using evidence in making policy and funding decisions.

Carper described the current congressional landscape as having "a lot of fake news and fake numbers as well," adding, "if we're going to actually make progress, we've got to find the data, drill down, and actually know what works."

Where Gamoran said he sees the most progress in Congress is "when it comes to the everyday workings of government" and legislative issues that are "less visible."

However, in a fundamentally ideological institution such as Congress, "as soon as something gets really visible," he said, "it's very difficult to get over that on highly charged, very visible issues."

One example is the proposed government reorganization. The Government Accountability Office, the legislative branch's investigative arm, wants to make sure the plan is based on data before initiating it. Democratic senators in a recent hearing pushed OMB for data and cost-benefit analysis surrounding the plan.

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