Obama’s Progress Basing Policy on Data–and the Challenges Ahead

Here’s a radical idea with strong bipartisan appeal: Let’s spend our tax dollars on programs that work. It sounds like something that policymakers and legislators already ought to be doing, much as we expect that doctors and car safety engineers will do things that are likely to save our lives.

But as a new book from my Brookings colleague Ron Haskins shows, the path toward evidence-based policymaking (as opposed to its evil twin, policy-based evidence-making) is a difficult one. Vested interests, lack of data, ideological blinders, and the attraction of anecdotes all get in the way of a more scientific basis for public policy, and especially social policy.

Mr. Haskins, a former Republican White House staffer, gives a good deal of credit to President Barack Obama’s administration for its progress–modest and halting though it has been–in shifting resources toward evaluation and evaluated programs. In some key areas–including home visiting, workforce innovation, and reduction in teen pregnancy–federal dollars are following high-quality evidence. One of the key factors has been the zeal, intelligence and resolution of some key individuals, including former budget director Peter Orszag; Kathy Stack and Robert Gordon of the Office of Management and Budget; and White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes. If nothing else, this shows that individuals can make a difference, even in a tough political environment.

But there are dangers ahead. Mr. Haskins (whose book is “as close to a page-turner as we’ll get in our business,” says Grant Thornton’s Robert Shea), worries about the political transitions in 2015 and 2017. With different staff and different priorities, the evidence-based movement may stall. Keeping up the momentum, Mr. Haskins urges, requires the government more broadly to embrace a “culture of evidence.” It would help, too, if 1% of discretionary spending were devoted automatically to evaluating programs and policies.

There is a deeper political challenge as well. It is not just government staffers who need to embrace a culture of evidence but also Congress. There is a real danger that evidence showing certain programs are not working well will simply be used as propaganda by those politicians who oppose government on principle. Mr. Orszag acknowledged on a Brookings panel Monday that “it is awkward to expose things that aren’t working well.” Mr. Gordon was gloomier still, fearing that “the demonization of the federal government will make this sort of thing impossible.”

To flourish, evidence-based policymaking demands a certain maturity on the part of the political classes. The idea is to spend on programs that work, not to stop spending altogether. There are some hopeful signs: Rep. Paul Ryan has become a right-wing crusader for both data collection and evidence-based policy. In a joint initiative with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, Rep. Ryan is pushing for the creation of a Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking. Signs suggest that their joint bill could pass this side of Christmas.

In terms of policy, the evidence-based movement has already proven its worth. Now it is up to the politicians.