Agencies Prep for Evidence-Based Policy Implementation

By Austin Smythe

On January 14, 2019, President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence- Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (P.L. 115- 435) into law. The federal government collects a huge amount of data. The goal of this law is to enhance the effectiveness of federal policymaking by making greater use of data and evidence in developing and implementing policies and evaluating the results those policies produce. 

The “Evidence Act” is designed to accomplish three things. First, designate officials and establish processes to incorporate evidence-based planning and review of the results in the operation and management of federal programs. Second, make data more readily available to decision makers and researchers. Third, ensure privacy protections and the security of the data the government collects. 

On July 10th, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued the first of four planned Memoranda to agencies over the next two years. This July 10th document affects FY21 budget planning and other short-term steps agencies must take to implement the Act. 

BACKGROUND 

The Evidence Act was the culmination of a bipartisan effort by former Speaker Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Murray (D-WA) that began in 2015 to advance data and evidence in policymaking. In 2016, Ryan and Murray teamed up to create a bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. In 2017, the Commission issued a unanimous report, “The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking.” Ryan and Murray based the Evidence Act on the Commission’s recommendations. 

The Evidence Act has three main components: 

Title I. Federal Evidence-Building Activities 

Agencies required to develop Evidence Building Plans or Learning Agendas in conjunction with strategic plans and annual evaluation plans. 

■ Agencies must designate an Evaluation officer and Statistical Official. 

■ OMB directed to issue guidance on program evaluation and the Office of Personnel Management in consultation with OMB to issue guidance on skills and competencies. 

Title II. Open Government Data Act 

Agencies required to establish an open data plan that makes data available under an open format and license. 

■ Agencies required to develop a comprehensive inventory of agency data assets. 

■ General Services Administration must create a single online interface to share data assets with the public. 

■ Agencies required to designate Chief Data Officers 

Title III. Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency 

Existing law and OMB directives codified 

■ Data assets can be made available to statistical agencies upon request, except when prohibited by law. 

■ Agencies shall expand access to data in a manner that protects data from inappropriate access and use. 

■ OMB required to create a common application process for researchers, state & local governments, and others to access data for developing evidence 

OMB GUIDANCE TO AGENCIES 

OMB plans to issue guidance for the implementation of the law in four phases: 

• Phase 1: Learning Agendas, Personnel, and Planning. (OMB Memorandum M-19-23, issued July 10, 2019) 

• Phase 2: Open Data Access and Management 

• Phase 3: Data Access for Statistical Purposes 

• Phase 4: Program Evaluation 

OMB’s Phase 1 guidance memorandum focuses on three topics: learning agendas, personnel, and planning. OMB sets deadlines for plans, actions, and reports that are frequently aligned with the budget process. In addition, OMB weaves the guidance into other efforts such as agency strategic plans. 

The following briefly summarize the memorandum’s key players, key products, and initial deadlines. 

Key Players. The Act and guidance require agencies to designate three senior officials as the Chief Data Officer (non-political), the Evaluation Officer, and Statistical Official. The guidance outlines OMB’s expectations, qualifications, and responsibilities of these officials. The memorandum provides guidance for the councils and boards created by the Act. 

Key Products. In the first phase of implementation, OMB directs agencies to develop Learning Agendas (or Evidence-Building Plans), Evaluation Plans, Capacity Assessments, and Open Data Plans. To meet the Act’s goal of making data open by default, the second phase requires agencies to develop a Comprehensive Data Inventory, Federal Data Catalogue, and a Repository of Tools and Best Practices. During the program evaluation phase, OMB calls on agencies to develop program evaluation standards and competencies. After the law is fully phased in, OMB describes ongoing requirements for the agencies. 

Initial Deadlines. In this first phase, OMB establishes deadlines for agencies to meet through 2022. The deadlines for the remainder of this year follow: 

July 13, 2019. Designate Chief Data Officer, Evaluation Officer, and Statistical Official and by August 2, 2019 submit the names and contact information for these officials to OMB. 

September 2019. As part of agencies’ submissions to OMB for their FY21 budget request, document progress on Learning Agendas, Evaluation Plans, and describe proposed approach for Capacity Assessments. During September, OMB will also hold an orientation session for designated officials. 

September 30, 2019. Establish and name members of a Data Governance Body. 

The promise of the Evidence Act lies in its bipartisan political support, its basis on the unanimous recommendations of a commission of experts on the topic, the focus on data and making it more readily available, and the flexibility the law and guidance envisions in its implementation. Achieving Evidence Act objectives requires continued support from Congress and agency action to integrate these new tools into operational and program management. 

“Here is why I am so passionate about evidence-based policymaking—and why I think this work is so important. Because no matter what any of us think about government in general—and no matter what we may think about programs or investments in particular— surely we should be able to agree that we should all do everything we can to make them work as well as possible.” —Senator Murray (D-WA), September 7, 2017 

Guest Contributor: FBIQ welcomes Austin Smythe as a guest contributor. Austin served as Policy Director for former House Speaker Ryan (R-WI) from 2015 to 2019. Previously, he worked with Rep. Ryan as Policy Director for the House Ways and Means Committee and Staff Director of the House Budget Committee. From 2001 to 2007, Austin was the Executive Associate Director at the Office of Management and Budget (and Acting Director in 2003), and from 1984 to 1999 served in senior positions at the Senate Budget Committee. 

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