This brief examines the main implications of the Foundations for EvidenceBased Policymaking Act of 2018 (“Evidence Act”), including: (1) enhancing the
infrastructure necessary for federal agencies to generate and use evidence in policy
development; (2) improving the process for researchers to access government data,
making it more open, streamlined, and secure, while also providing stronger privacy
standards and legal protections; and (3) helping federal agencies develop a common
understanding of how to articulate important policy questions, obtain relevant data,
and better utilize existing data. (You can find a summary of the Evidence Act and
the July 2019 OMB guidance to federal agencies of this law here and a section-bysection summary of the major provisions of the Evidence Act here).
This brief also describes a possible forward-looking federal agenda that could help
federal agencies and officials further harness the power of evidence and data to
make federal policies and programs more effective and efficient. More specifically, a
“2.0” version of the Evidence Act should require federal agencies to:
• Set aside 1 percent of their program funds for program evaluations, including
rigorous and independent evaluations whenever feasible; and
• Prioritize rigorous evidence of effectiveness when allocating funds in their federal
discretionary competitive and noncompetitive grant programs.
THE PROMISE OF THE FOUNDATIONS
FOR EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING ACT
AND PROPOSED NEXT STEPS
Evidence Act Brief
When combined with the gains achieved by the Evidence Act, these two
recommendations would substantially improve the ability of government to invest in
what works and improve the lives of millions of Americans.
I. The Promise of the Evidence Act
The principle behind evidence-based policymaking is simple: government
decisions should be based on rigorous evidence and data about what works.
Policymakers should start each decision-making process by seeking the best
evidence and data available, then use that information to adopt policies and direct
funding in a way that achieves better results for the American people. Against the
backdrop of a $4 trillion federal budget, the implications of evidence-based policy
are massive. Directing federal dollars to the most effective and efficient policies
and programs can dramatically improve the well-being of communities across
the country. But, this kind of sea change requires a change not just in how federal
agencies do their work, but also in their will to repurpose dollars toward programs
and practices proven to work.
The past few years have seen dramatic shifts towards better incorporation of
data and evidence in policymaking processes. Since 2015, Congress has passed
landmark bipartisan legislation that is helping to identify and invest in what works
in K-12 education (Every Student Succeeds Act), foster care (Family First Prevention
Services Act), juvenile justice (Juvenile Justice Reform Act), opioid prevention,
treatment, and care (SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act), and federal agency
operations (Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, featured in this brief).
The Foundations of Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (“Evidence Act”) was
based in large part on the recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based
Policymaking (CEP), which was created by a federal law championed by former U.S.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and enacted
in 2016 to study how government could better use data and evidence to improve
federal programs. The Commission released a report in September 2017 that
advanced 22 recommendations to foster the building and use of data and evidence
in federal policymaking, many of which Results for America and other organizations
had been promoting for several years.
These recommendations, coupled with the bipartisan leadership from
Members of Congress and committed federal civil servants, and the advocacy work
of evidence-based policy champions, including Results for America, from all across
the country formed the contours of the Evidence Act, which was passed by the U.S.
Senate and House with overwhelming support from both parties—including passage
by unanimous consent in the Senate—and was signed into law in early 2019. This
bipartisan law dramatically expanded the ability of the federal government to
evaluate the impact of its programs, to make data, evidence and evaluation regular
components of the policy process, and to increase public access to federally held
data. The Evidence Act is far from the last word in evidence-based policy, but it
represents a major step forward in measuring and improving the impact of federal
A rigorous evidence-based process not only helps determine whether policy
goals are being achieved, but also restores faith in the policymaking process and
government itself. In the absence of objective evidence, lobbyists, and others with
access, can dominate the process either by presenting their case with data skewed
to support their interests, or by exerting political pressure that ignores data all
together. In fact, a recent poll commissioned by Results for America indicated that
just 8 percent of respondents thought policy was primarily driven by evidence—with
34 percent believing that lobbyists’ influence drove policy and 42 percent thinking
that policy was driven by politicians’ desire to get votes. And a recent Government
Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that almost four-in-ten federal managers
were unaware of any evaluations of their respective programs. The Evidence Act
provides federal agencies with the tools to right this ship, making data and evidence
use a regular part of how they do business and invest taxpayer dollars.
The Evidence Act’s focus on improving access to high-quality data will enable
researchers and policymakers to better explore multidimensional solutions to
difficult social problems. For example, in a series of landmark studies, economist Raj
Chetty used government data on income, education, and housing to highlight the
relative lack of American economic mobility and how that interplays with inequality,
education, health, and location. Additionally, economists Bruce Meyer and Nikolas
Mittag were able to link administrative data from government welfare programs to
official poverty statistics. Using the combined data, they found that official poverty
statistics greatly underestimate the amount of public benefits received by lowincome families and thus may misstate their level of economic hardship.
(1) Enhancing the infrastructure necessary for federal agencies to use evidence in
For government to incorporate evidence in policymaking, new habits and
capabilities must be formed and infrastructure created. Designated personnel
within an agency must take the lead in developing the structures and policies that
define the agency’s priority questions for which evidence is needed, the standards
for generating that evidence and using its resulting data, and the process for
regularly evaluating its work. Moreover, key personnel must ensure that evidence
and evaluation are incorporated into the agency’s budget, policy, and management
decisions. The Evidence Act facilitates the creation of this structure and new
• Requiring Chief Data Officers within each agency to be responsible for data
management, privacy and confidentiality and data access. The Chief Data Officer is
also required to lead a Data Governance Body that will set the agency’s data policy.
• Requiring the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to create
a federal government-wide Chief Data Officers Council that will, among other
things, identify ways to protect data privacy and promote appropriate data
• Requiring Evaluation Officers within the 24 government agencies covered by the
Chief Financial Officers Act (CFO Act) to assess methods and data use. Evaluation
Officers lead the drafting and implementation of written evaluation plans and
multi-year learning agendas that lay out the process for answering key policy
• Prioritizing Evidence-Building by directing agencies covered by the CFO
Act to craft a multi-year Learning Agendas that detail how they will identify
policy questions and gather relevant data. These agencies also are required
to develop Evaluation Plans that describe key questions for each significant
evaluation study planned for the next fiscal year, including the key information
to be collected. The goal behind mandating these evidence-building plans is for
each agency to incorporate an evaluative process into its program design and
policymaking so that the appropriate data is collected and the right methods are
used to analyze that data.
• Requiring agencies to conduct periodic capacity assessments and report on
their ability to perform statistical evaluation, research and analysis in their daily
operations, identifying where key skills and competencies are falling short.
The U.S. Department of Labor has had a Chief Evaluation Officer
since 2010. The Chief Evaluation Officer coordinates evaluations
Department-wide, including office staff and leadership to interpret
research and evaluation findings and to identify their implications
for programmatic and policy decisions. The Chief Evaluation Office,
overseen by the Chief Evaluation Officer, has nine full-time staff,
several contractors, and a couple of detailees at any given time. This
staff is augmented by staff from research and evaluation units in other
DOL divisions. The Office receives $8.04 million in dedicated funding
and may receive up to an additional 0.75 percent from statutorilyspecified program accounts at the Secretary’s discretion.
Evaluation Officers in Practice
• Fostering inter-agency coordination and “cross-pollination” of best practices by
requiring OMB to consolidate each agencies’ input into a unified report. In addition,
the Evidence Act cuts through significant governmental “red tape” by reducing
statutory limits on agencies’ ability to share data, resulting in less duplicative data
queries, while simultaneously strengthening privacy and confidentiality protections.
• Establishing an Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence–Building to
recommend how to expand access to and use of federal data in policy decisions.
(2) Improving the process for researchers to access government data, making
it more open, streamlined, and secure, while also providing stronger privacy
standards and legal protections.
Prior to the Evidence Act, researchers who sought to assess the effectiveness
of government programs had to navigate a daunting bureaucratic process to access
relevant data. The Evidence Act helps researchers locate and securely access the
data they need, and encourages federal agencies to release non-sensitive data
publicly. Specifically, the Evidence Act:
• Directs agencies to provide public access to collected data whenever possible
and provide it in an open and machine-readable format, which helps various
datasets be compatible and user-friendly.
• Creates a streamlined, transparent application process for accessing
restricted data. Rather than undertake multiple and diverse application
processes, researchers can apply to access certain restricted data using a single,
secure, common application system. Researchers must still meet appropriate
qualifications and restrictions that protect personal and confidential information.
However, the Evidence Act creates full transparency about how the data will be
used as all applications (even those rejected) are made public.
Prior to the public release of data, agencies must review privacy and
confidentiality risks that could arise (particularly data collected under
a pledge of confidentiality). Data will be “de-identified,” or “masked,”
so that all personal identifiers are removed. The risk assessment
examines whether the de-identified information is restricted by written
agreement; the cost/benefit to the public; and risks involving security,
legal liability, intellectual property rights, and confidential business
information. Critically, the assessment examines identification risks if
the data are combined with other public information.
Comprehensive Risk Assessments
• Requires agencies to maintain a comprehensive Federal Data Catalogue,
including metadata on each data set. Collected data will be cataloged and
searchable with descriptive details to improve researchers’ queries. This helps
researchers connect various data sets that have information on the same
people or communities. The Federal Data Catalogue will increase the effective
use of data by allowing researchers to locate publicly available data in a single
• Directs the Chief Data Council to review best practices in data security, and
assess the coordination and availability of data across agencies. The Council
also solicits feedback from data users outside of government.
(3) Helping federal agencies develop a common understanding of how to
articulate important policy questions, obtain relevant data, and better utilize
The increased use of data must not threaten individual privacy or diminish data
security. Fortunately, advances in statistical methods and computing technology
provide ways to protect data while extracting value. The Evidence Act provides strong
controls to protect personal information while increasing transparency about what
data government collects and how this data is used. Specifically, the Evidence Act:
• Encourages the consistent application of rules by directing the Chief Data
Officer Council to promote standardization of data and rules throughout
• Strengthens privacy laws and policies by amending existing law to ensure
confidentiality pledges cannot be violated and adds stringent privacy
requirements to acquire and use data. Statistical agencies must categorize data
based on its sensitivity level and undertake comprehensive risk assessments
prior to public release.
• Institutes transparency by requiring agencies to publicly release the criteria
used in developing comprehensive risk assessments, which determine the
degree of protection for data.
• Fosters public trust by requiring government to maintain objectivity,
independence, and confidentiality in evidence-building by requiring that the use
of statistical information and the interpretation of data be “accurate,” “unbiased,”
and “credible.” The Evidence Act also requires confidential data be protected and
used for statistical purposes only.
Specifically, the Evidence Act amends the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency
The Evidence Act also fosters continual improvement and feedback. Within
two years of the law’ enactment, the GAO must issue a report that summarizes
agency findings and trends in agencies’ use of data and evidence as stated in
the agencies’ strategic plans. The GAO report will also recommend actions to
improve data use and techniques in evaluating evidence for policy. Similarly, OMB
will generate guidelines for best practices in program evaluation and will create a
new career path for program evaluation within an agency. Finally, the Evidence Act
requires periodic guidance as part of its implementation. In July 2019, OMB released
guidance related to the first phase of Evidence Act implementation—Learning
Agendas, Personnel, and Planning. (You can find a summary of the Evidence Act and
the July 2019 OMB guidance to federal agencies of this law here.)
The Evidence Act lays important groundwork for increasing the use of
evidence-based policymaking within the federal government by creating or
enhancing the necessary personnel and infrastructure. But, more action is required
to ensure federal agencies use data and evidence to inform their fiscal and policy
decisions. The next step is to encourage agencies to use the Evidence Act’s
infrastructure in a way that ensures federal resources are spent in an evidencebased manner.
II. PROPOSED NEXT STEPS
While the Evidence Act created essential evidence-based tools and
infrastructure within the federal government, additional legislation is needed to
incorporate evidence into the daily operations, policymaking, and grant making
decisions of federal agencies. In this section, we identify two key components to a
follow-up bill, an Evidence Act 2.0, that would build on earlier legislative efforts:
• Invest 1 percent of existing federal program funds in evaluations; and
• Direct federal agencies to prioritize evidence of effectiveness—including goldstandard randomized controlled trials wherever feasible—during competitions for
new and existing federal grant programs.
Invest in evaluations of government programs
An Evidence Act 2.0 should require federal agencies to set aside at least
1 percent of their program funds to strengthen their evaluation capacity and to
conduct rigorous program evaluations. These funds would provide Evaluation
Officers with dedicated and consistent resources to carry out the activities included
This approach is also generally consistent with the approach outlined in the Commission’s final report,
although we note that RFA advocates for at least 1 percent for evaluation, while the Commission’s report
advocates for up to 1 percent for evaluation.
in the agency evaluation plans and learning agendas. A new Evidence Act should
also require new and existing federal grantees to conduct rigorous program
evaluations as a condition of receiving funding.
Congress and federal agencies spend billions of dollars every day trying to
tackle big problems, but they rarely evaluate how well their efforts address those
problems. In a 2017 GAO study, 39 percent of federal managers reported that they did
not know if an evaluation of any program, operation, or project they were involved in
had been completed within the past 5 years. Another 18 percent of federal managers
reported having had no evaluations during this same time period.
Moreover, a March 2019 poll conducted by NORC at the University of
Chicago found that 84 percent of Americans support investing 1 percent of federal
program funds in evaluations to determine if they are effective or not. Leaders
and organizations from across the political spectrum have also expressed support
including the 15 bipartisan experts from the Commission on Evidence-based
Policymaking and senior policy advisors in the Bush and Obama administrations.
Despite widespread support for the 1 percent set aside, few programs meet
this threshold. For example Results for America’s 2018 Invest in What Works
Federal Standard of Excellence found that six of the largest federal human services
departments and agencies invested, on average, only 0.38 percent of their budgets
on evaluation activities in FY18. Nonetheless, two of the largest federal foreign
assistance agencies, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and U.S. Agency for
International Development, invested 5.1 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively, that
same year. Providing 1 percent for evaluation would address federal policymakers’
lack of basic information about the effectiveness of government programs and
would allow management to make better spending decisions based on a program’s
effectiveness, helping government spending get more “bang for the buck.”
• Federal appropriations laws in Fiscal Years 2016 through 2019 provide the
Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) with the authority to set aside
up to 0.75 percent of workforce training funds for program evaluations. DOL also
requires all of its federal competitive grant program grantees to participate in
evaluations if asked.
• The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) authorizes the Secretary of
the U.S. Department of Education to set aside up to 0.5 percent of federal K-12
education funds (excluding ESSA Title I funds) for program evaluations. It also
authorizes $710,000 each year for evaluations of the ESSA Title I program.
3 For example, in a 2017 discussion at the Aspen Institute, John Bridgeland (President Bush’s domestic
policy adviser) and Peter Orszag (President Obama’s budget director) both advocated for the 1 percent set
aside for evaluation.
Prioritize evidence in competitive and non-competitive grantmaking
The twin goals of evidence-based policymaking are to improve outcomes
effectively and efficiently. Directing federal grant funds toward evidence-based
solutions is a way to accomplish both goals. As such, an Evidence Act 2.0 should
direct all federal agencies to prioritize evidence of effectiveness—including goldstandard randomized controlled trials wherever feasible—during competitions for
new and existing federal grant programs.
In most cases, federal agencies currently have the administrative authority to
elevate evidence of effectiveness as a priority during the competitive grant process.
The next version of the Evidence Act should require agencies to use this authority to
the fullest extent possible to ensure that taxpayer dollars are increasingly invested in
On the other hand, federal agencies are required to allocate funds from their
noncompetitive grant programs (including the largest block grant programs which
provide funding to cities, counties, and states) as outlined in the federal laws. For this
reason, the next version of the Evidence Act should amend these laws to encourage
and/or require recipients of both competitive and noncompetitive grants to invest a
portion of their grants in evidence-based, results-driven solutions. These changes
are absolutely necessary if the federal government is to play a significant role in
improving the lives of individuals, families, and communities given that in FY2019,
seven of the largest federal human services agencies provided $96.7 billion through
their five largest noncompetitive grants.
• Thirteen of the 31 largest federal competitive grant programs at seven of the
largest federal human services agencies use evidence of effectiveness when
allocating funds. While the rigor and application of these evidence standards vary
by agency and program, some leading examples include:
◊ U.S. Department of Education (ED):
» In FY18, ED prioritized evidence of effectiveness when allocating funds
from its five largest competitive grant programs ($2.15 billion total
appropriation in FY18).
» For example, ED’s TRIO Student Support Services program ($300
million in FY18), TRIO Talent Search program (over $150 million in
FY18), and TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science program (nearly
$400 million in FY18) awarded competitive preference points to grant
applicants proposing to invest awarded funds in strategies supported
by at least moderate evidence of effectiveness.
◊ Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS):
» In FY18, CNCS’s AmeriCorps State and National competitive grant
program application allocated up to 12 points out of 100 to applicants
proposing strategies supported by rigorous evidence of effectiveness.
• Five of the 35 largest federal noncompetitive discretionary grant programs at
seven of the largest federal domestic human services agencies use evidence of
effectiveness when allocating funds, including:
◊ The U.S. Department of Labor’s 2019 guidance on Unemployment Insurance
(UI) Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessment (RESEA) Grants,
includes a new requirement for evidence-based approaches, encouraging
“the Department to fund and states to use evidence-based strategies where
they exist and to conduct evaluations and build evidence in places where
needed. The goal is to ensure that each state employs RESEA interventions
and service delivery strategies that, based on rigorous evaluations, improve
employment outcomes and reduce benefit duration…” (Section 306 of the
Social Security Act).
◊ U.S. Department of Education: The Every Student Succeeds Act requires
states to set aside at least 7 percent of their ESSA Title I, Part A funds (this
7 percent set aside represents $1.1 billion in FY19) for a range of activities
to help school districts improve low-performing schools. School districts
and individual schools are required to create action plans that focus on
investments in “evidence-based” interventions that demonstrate strong,
moderate, or promising levels of evidence.
• Opioids: The bipartisan 2018 SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act,
authorizes approximately $195 million for evidence-based services and
evaluations to help fight our nation’s opioid crisis including: $15 million for the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services to replicate and rigorously evaluate
the impact of a family recovery and reunification program and $10 million per
year to support evidence-based services to prevent and treat substance use
disorders affecting children, adolescents, and young adults (more information on
the evidence provisions is available here).
• Juvenile Justice: The bipartisan 2018 Juvenile Juvenile Justice Reform Act defines
what constitutes “evidence-based” and “promising” for programs funded through
the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Under the competitive
incentive grants for prison reduction program, states must invest federal funds in
evidence-based or promising programs, and they receive a priority for developing
data-driven prevention plans, employing evidence-based prevention strategies,
and conducting program evaluations (more information on the evidence
provisions of this act is available here).
The Evidence Act requires the White House Office of Management and Budget
and federal agencies to build the foundational capacity they need to be able to use
evidence and data in their decisions and policymaking. Future federal legislation,
however, is needed to ensure that sufficient federal resources are available to
build evidence of what works and that federal agencies are prioritizing evidence of
effectiveness when allocating federal funds.