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What the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Will Do

July 27, 2015

Today, the House passed H.R. 1831, The Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act. This bill is the first step in a long-term effort to strengthen the federal safety net by changing the very mindset in Washington.

Today, policymakers focus on inputs—like how much money they’re spending or how many people are on certain programs. What they need to do is focus on outcomes—like how many people are getting off assistance and finding jobs.

So this bill would create a 15-person commission on evidence-based policymaking. Its task would be to figure out the best way for the federal government to organize, protect, and analyze data to improve public policy.

Right now, the federal government collects an immense amount of information, whether it’s administrative data from federal programs or survey data from the Census. But there’s not much coordination across agencies, so this information sits in different silos spread throughout the government. And all too often, researchers don’t have access to information that is crucial to evaluating whether the program works.

The commission would study how to integrate this data and use it to perform evaluations that could help policymakers improve programs. But the commission would also investigate how to make data available to other qualified researchers while also protecting people’s privacy and ensuring confidentiality.

Specifically, the commission would examine whether it would make sense to create a clearinghouse for program and survey data. In addition, the commission would look into how to incorporate randomized controlled trails into federal programs. All these reforms have the potential to make public policy much more efficient and effective.

The president, the House speaker, the Senate majority leader, and the minority leaders in both chambers would each appoint three members of the commission. With the exception of the president’s, two of their appointees must be academic researchers, data experts, or have experience in administering programs, and one must have expertise in database management, confidentiality, and privacy matters.

The commission must send its findings to Congress in a report due no later than 15 months after most of the commission members have been appointed.

Creating this commission will begin to shift the focus in Washington from effort to results. It’s a key part of House Republicans’ effort to fight poverty—“welfare reform 2.0,” as Chairman Ryan calls it. As he said recently, this bill is important because when we use data to evaluate public policy, “we won’t have debates between Republicans and Democrats—but between what works and what doesn’t.”