Designing a new culture of practical policymaking

New legislation aims to improve evidence-based decision making

Security firewall On January 14, 2019, President Trump signed into law the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, a bipartisan measure aimed at improving federal program evaluation and data analysis. The new legislation requires each government agency to appoint a Chief Evaluation Officer, name a Chief Data Officer, publicly release inventories of data sets, ensure data they are using and sharing is protected from inappropriate disclosure of personally identifiable information and produce evidence-building plans to align research and evaluation effort to key policymaker questions.

The legislation serves as a promising next step in addressing gaps in federal program evaluations. As the Government Accountability Office recently reported:

“In a 2017 government-wide survey, GAO found that most federal managers lack recent evaluations of their programs. Forty percent reported that an evaluation had been completed within the past five years of any program, operation, or project they were involved in. Another 39 percent of managers reported that they did not know if an evaluation had been completed, and 18 percent reported having none.”

Recently, Mary Moore Hamrick, Grant Thornton’s national managing principal, Public Policy spoke with Robert Shea, a principal in the firm’s Public Sector office who was tapped by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s team to serve on the 15-member bipartisan congressional commission established in 2016 to help draft the legislation. Shea shares his insights about the impact of the law in the following interview.

Mary Moore Hamrick: Why does this new law matter? Robert Shea: It’s really about what we know about federal programs that work and don’t work, then using that information to help them work better. The law will require federal agencies to establish learning agendas: like determining what big questions about programs must be asked, conducting evaluations to answer those questions, then using those answers in decision making. Other provisions in the law include creating chief data officers for agencies, improving policies to ensure the privacy and protection of data, and having the presumption that collected data will be transparent and public — unless there is some compelling reason not to disclose it, such as privacy.

Hamrick: What will be the impact of the legislation on the Public Sector? Shea: The Public Sector is going to be charged with implementing the spirit of the Act. So they’ll need to appoint those evaluation and Chief Data Officers. They’ll have to set learning agendas, and ask and answer key questions, evaluate those answers, and then use those results in their decision making. That should improve agencies’ performance. And Grant Thornton clients on the commercial side or in the non-profit sector that interact directly with the government — whether through contracts, grants or loans — may be providing the data.

Hamrick: What kind of performance improvement will likely occur as a result of the Act? Shea: Ultimately, you want to know whether federal programs are achieving their intended outcomes. If you rigorously evaluate many of the programs, you’ll find that they are not having their intended impact. It’s unfortunate but factual. So we ought to take money away from those programs and invest in those proven to be effective. It’s unusual that we will have that stark of a choice. But you can see that as we learn more about what’s moving the dial, we are going to be able to reallocate resources more efficiently.

Hamrick: Can you provide an example of where this has worked? Shea: When I was at OMB, we did rigorous evaluations of the children’s after-school Even Start Program. We eventually learned children outside the program did better than those in the program. So it was most definitely not achieving its intended outcome, and we were able to ween that program of its funding, and ultimately it was eliminated.

Robert Shea"Ultimately, you want to know whether federal programs are achieving their intended outcomes. As we learn more about what's moving the dial, we are going to be able to reallocate resources more efficiently."
Robert Shea
Principal, Public Sector
Grant Thornton LLP
Contrast that with the nurse-home visitation program, in which a registered nurse is placed in the home of an underprivileged newborn to help a family with parenting, job-searching skills and health-care skills. Numerous studies found the program positively impacted important outcomes like birth weight, the health of a child and family income levels. So through demonstrating the impact of the program, it has been scaled up in the successive Bush, Obama and now Trump administrations.

Hamrick: What are some other likely implications of the legislation? Shea: The most unsung efforts resulting from this initiative are those of the researchers who are compiling the evidence and crunching data so we can learn what the government is doing, which programs really work. But there are so few examples of where data collection has impacted policy making.

There’s the Labor Department and other, smaller examples across government. But to the extent that we can really expand the use of this kind of evidence in decision making and in seeing dramatic improvements in agencies’ performances, I think it will take time to get there. But that’s what we’re hoping.

Hamrick: What do you anticipate will be some next steps following the passage of this Act? Shea: The Commission’s recommendations were comprehensive and aligned to key requirements. It seems like it took heroic efforts to get the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act enacted, but that was just the low hanging fruit – the easier recommendations. The more challenging parts included setting the framework for the bill, which included having an evaluation officer and a Chief Data Officer, and deciding on how those two would work together. The Act really is the foundation for greater evidence-based policymaking. The hope is that the Commission’s other policy recommendations can be acted on in the future.


Mary Moore Hamrick
National Managing Principal, Public Policy
T +1 202 521 1545

Robert SheaRobert Shea
Principal, Public Sector
T +1 703 637 2780

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Mary Moore HamrickJoseph Weber
T +1 202 861 4106

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