New Jersey Policy Lab: Evidence-based policymaking on the federal level

December 7, 2021

by Jennifer Spiegel

“Evidence-based policymaking” seems to be all the rage with think tanks, lawmakers, and governmental agencies, but what does it mean, really? Evidence-based policymaking uses the best available research and data to target resources to programs and policies that are proven to work.[1] It guides decision-making using results-driven solutions and rigorous data analysis. Lately, legislative bodies have begun to incorporate evidence-based standards into their requirements for funding applications for grants and programs. This results in policy decisions becoming more transparent as they are backed up with data, but the question becomes, what happens if the data to evaluate policy programs are not widely available?

In 2018, Congress took a step towards expanding publicly available data by passing the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (“The Act”).[2] This law requires agencies to create open data plans to make federal data publicly available and searchable. It also requires agencies to report annually to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a systematic plan for identifying and addressing policy questions.  The law, which took effect in 2019, requires agencies to make their administrative data available for evidence-based analysis and to incorporate evidence-based research into future policymaking decisions.

Now, almost three years later, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report finding that agencies’ use of performance evaluative information is on the rise since the passage of the Act.[3] A survey of managers at 24 federal agencies showed that performance data was used in agency decision-making more in 2020 than in 2017, with a statistically significantly increase in its use. Agencies such as NASA and the Department of Veterans Affairs highlighted specific project funding that was allocated based on performance indicators. Additionally, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) expanded its evaluation registry and developed a dashboard of all evaluations from 2016 to the present, allowing “USAID missions to learn from each other and use the evaluation findings to inform decisions about programs,” said Winston Allen, senior evaluations specialist at USAID.[4] In fact, evidence-based policymaking is so much on the rise that OMB is reminding federal agencies to budget for evaluative data collection and analysis funding for the 2023 fiscal year.[5]

The implementation of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act raises some interesting public informatics implications.  Agencies are likely to be more transparent and accountable for their funding decisions.  And from a public informatics perspective, more administrative data is likely to be publicly available.  All of this is great news. But with so much data available, ensuring that it is accurate and representative becomes a greater challenge. Hopefully, the Chief Data Officer Council with a representative from every federal agency set up in The Act will provide enough oversight for the mounds of data that will be released to the public. But those of us that hope to use the newly available data will also have to remain vigilant and careful.


[1] National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020.) The ABCs of Evidence-Informed Policymaking: Principles and Strategies for State Policymakers.

[2] Foundations for Evidence Based Policymaking Act of 2018. (2019). P.L. 115-435.

[3] Government Accountability Office (GAO). (2021). Evidence-Based Policymaking: Survey Results Suggest Increased Use of Performance Information Across the Federal Government.

[4] Nyczepir, Dave. (2021). USAID going above and beyond Evidence Act requirements. FEDSCOOP

[5] Nyczepir, Dave. (2021). Experts urge OMB to ensure agencies budget for evidence-based policymaking. FEDSCOOP.

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