OPED: ‘Evidence’ is the word of the year. Neither party owns it

Ted Mccann and Nick Hart
Cq-Roll Call
FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2015 file photo, President Barack Obama signs the "Every Student Succeeds Act," a major education law setting U.S. public schools on a new course of accountability, in Washington. States are grappling with as they are working to submit blueprints of how they will implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, a landmark education law meant to help struggling schools. The law allows states greater flexibility in dealing with low performing schools, but the flexibility also comes with the risk or doing too little, too much or too differently. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Republicans and Democrats aren’t always at each other’s throats. There is more bipartisanship in Congress than most acknowledge, and no matter what they say, neither party has a monopoly on evidence.

A movement is underway to use better information to guide key decisions. This, in turn, yields a clearer picture of whether important programs achieve their goals and improve people’s lives.

What could be more important for our elected leaders than having and using facts for good decisions that positively affect their constituents?

This transformation in policymaking has been driven by ideologically diverse members of Congress, and aimed at welfare, foster care, education and criminal justice, among other social programs.

While these reforms may not have made headlines, they are significant. Here are four examples:

Home visiting: The George W. Bush administration launched a project to send nurses to advise new parents at home. Data analyzed from that pilot showing better health, fewer hospital visits and lower domestic violence prompted the Barack Obama administration and Congress to establish the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program.

Despite being part of the politically controversial Affordable Care Act law, home visiting is widely favored by both Republicans and Democrats.

Last year, the program provided nearly 1 million home visits, serving 156,000 families across the country. The low-income families that participated have improved newborn health, children with better school readiness, and fewer child injuries.

Education: The Every Student Succeeds Act created a new education initiative championed by the Obama administration and a bipartisan group of legislators. It required states to provide information to the federal government about whether early education programs were effective.

These programs help prepare children in low-income families for a better transition to elementary school. The movement toward greater evidence in education programs continues in 2018 with enactment of legislation on career and technical education.

Child welfare: In 2018, Congress made the first major modifications to the foster care system’s financing in 40 years as part of a bipartisan budget agreement.

The Family First Prevention Services Act limits payments to states in a way that ensures services are effective and backed by reliable evidence, so that the 400,000 children in foster care receive the attention and care they need. It will help fewer kids enter foster care by providing support for at-risk children and families.

Pay for success: The Social Impact Partnerships to Pay for Success Act provides funding for states to partner with the federal government to identify key metrics for social programs and make payments when results are delivered.

They will use an innovative pay-for-performance mechanism first proposed by the Obama administration, then championed by Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

New York City used the approach to test reduced juvenile incarceration approaches. When reoffenses did not drop as expected, the city was not on the hook to pay for the services.

Next year, the Treasury Department will award funds for new projects supporting state and local governments in testing and learning new ideas with social benefits.

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More bipartisan reforms in social welfare policy are in the pipeline. Pending criminal justice reforms include requirements to use evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism rates through successful rehabilitative programs. A pending bill on illicit drug control aims to improve data-sharing and evaluation so the country can have an effective drug control policy. There are many others.

Yet there is still room for improvement in making evidence a consistent and sustained priority beyond social policy. That was also the bipartisan conclusion last year from a blue-ribbon panel created by Congress.

The U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking issued its bipartisan strategy with specific recommendations. In response, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, proposed legislation to enact some of the recommendations.

Their Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act would take steps to improve access to data for analyzing whether programs work, strengthen privacy protections to keep sensitive data confidential, and set an expectation that agencies routinely evaluate their programs.

Enacting that legislation would be one of the most commonsense actions Congress could take to ensure services are effective. It is also a logical next step to ensure the lessons learned from social policy apply to the rest of government.

The partisan fights that dominate headlines keep pushing forward. But so does the hard work of injecting more evidence into our country’s policymaking. Now it’s time to look to other policy domains.

— Ted McCann is a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He previously served as a senior domestic policy adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan. Nick Hart is director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence Project. He previously served as the policy and research director for the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.