Interview with Nick Hart: New Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative
Nick Hart is the director of The Bipartisan Policy Center’s new Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative. He served as the policy and research director for the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, overseeing the commission’s policy and research support team and leading the drafting process of “The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking” report and recommendations presented to the Congress and the president in September 2017.
Hart is an active APPAM member, serving as a member of APPAM's Student Advisory Committee in 2015 and as an integral part of planning the first DC Regional Student Conference. He earned a doctorate from The George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, specializing in program evaluation. He also holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Science and Master of Public Affairs degree from Indiana University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from Truman State University.
What are your primary goals as you direct this new Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative? Why is the Bipartisan Policy Center taking on a new role in evidence-based policymaking?
Policymakers need good information on which to base decisions in order to meet the demands of the American people for a government that operates effectively and tackles the problems that face the country. Whether developing regulations, agreeing to funding levels, or determining which policies to advance, policymakers constantly demand that evidence be generated and available to meet this need. Today, too little evidence is produced to satisfy this demand and that’s a real problem.
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative is designed to continue and expand the work of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which outlined a vision that rigorous evidence can be created efficiently as a routine part of government operations. In turn, this evidence can be used to construct effective policy.
BPC is a natural home for the continuation of this work. In the past, BPC has taken on other important policy commissions—such as the 9/11 Commission and the Fiscal Commission—recognizing the need for continued work to transform the bipartisan recommendations into reality. When the Evidence Commission issued its final report – The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking – to Congress and the President on September 7, 2017, it did so with a set of unanimous recommendations supported by all of the commissioners.
We know that there is currently a lot of work to do to improve how evidence is built and used in the United States. The Commission’s recommendations represent the beginning of that discussion by outlining a strategy for generating more and better evidence. The Bipartisan Policy Center will continue this work by advocating and supporting implementation of each of the Commission’s 22 recommendations. Fortunately, the Commission’s co-chairs, Katharine G. Abraham and Ron Haskins, will continue to co-chair the BPC initiative providing steady bipartisan leadership on the issue moving forward.
Are there specific issues the BPC initiative will focus on?
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s new initiative will support implementation of all the Commission’s recommendations, including those for improving secure access to data, strengthening privacy protections, and encouraging greater capacity for generating evidence. In coming weeks and months, the “Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act” announced by Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray in September will be an inevitable priority. Then, supporting authorization and development of the National Secure Data Service recommended by the Commission will be a major area of attention moving forward. Passage of legislation that includes some of the Commission’s recommendations would be a great marker for success.
How do you hope to use the momentum from the Commission’s report as you launch this Initiative? Is implementation more likely to be successful now than during past commissions and panels?
Fully implementing the Commission’s vision and recommendations will require the collective leadership of the President and Congress. There has already been an incredible commitment from leaders in Congress to begin to take steps to implement recommendations made by the Commission.
But even in the absence of congressional action, there is much work that can be done to develop implementation strategies for the recommendations. There are many recommendations that the Executive Branch could begin to implement today, and the Bipartisan Policy Center stands ready to work with partners in the evidence-building community and the Executive Branch to make as much meaningful progress as possible for improving how evidence is generated and used in our country. In fact, this is one area of distinction between this Commission and other past policy commissions – by continuing the work at BPC there is an acknowledgement that the report and recommendations will not merely sit on a shelf, but will be advanced in every way possible.
Are there next steps in establishing the NSDS? How will the Initiative advance that goal?
The National Secure Data Service was one of the core recommendations made by the Commission, envisioned as a service that can fill existing gaps for providing access to government data and also conducting linkages in a safe and secure manner. The Commission recognized that improving access to data in a privacy protective manner is an essential step in addressing the shortfall of evidence to meet policymakers’ needs today. The NSDS was proposed by the Commission to support simultaneously improving privacy protections while also enabling secure access to data for qualified researchers.
Given the broad implications and complexities of a resource like the NSDS, implementation will obviously not happen overnight. We know that in addition to Congress authorizing the NSDS, more work is needed to figure out specific implementation details as the service is created to ensure the NSDS continuously adopts privacy-protective technologies and deploys approaches that reduce the risk of re-identifying confidential data. In coming months and, if necessary, years, the Bipartisan Policy Center initiative will be working with the former commissioners, interested stakeholders, the Executive Branch, and Congress to move forward on the launch of the NSDS.
Can you speak more to the Commission’s guiding principle of humility? (“Humility. Care should be taken not to over-generalize from findings that may be specific to a particular study or context.”)
The Commission and the Bipartisan Policy Center recognize that there are many important inputs to making policy decisions in democratic society, and that evidence should play an important role in informing decision making even if evidence is not the only factor used in reaching a final decision about policies. Rarely will perfect information be available in evidence to support its eventual use in policymaking. The Commission’s discussion of the humility principle is an acknowledgement that as we generate evidence and use evidence, we all have an obligation to responsibly use that information.
Just as there is often no “one size fits all” national legislation, how difficult is it to apply various data types/sets to policymaking? How do you encourage buy-in from representatives?
The Commission outlined a vision that “rigorous evidence is created efficiently, as a routine part of government operations, and used to construct effective public policy.” How exactly this is achieved will differ across policy domains, agencies, and even levels of government. The Commission’s final report presents a strategy that suggests laws and policies can be put in place to enable this appropriate response to develop across government and in partnership with those outside of government.
Communicating the need for addressing the existing gaps and the potential opportunities is a continuous challenge we face in the field. One area that is especially useful at encouraging these discussions are productive use cases – highlighting successful applications of evidence to inform policymaking as well as gaps that exist today because data are not accessible or the evidence is not available. Moving forward, the BPC initiative will continue seeking out and disseminating these types of use cases that serve as a strategy for communicating the value of evidence in policymaking.
What is the role of organizations like APPAM? There are many organizations that care about data and the use of data in decision making – how can these organization support this effort?
The collective evidence-building community, including APPAM’s members, have an opportunity to learn more about the recommendations by reading the report or joining the plenary session during the fall APPAM conference in Chicago. There are certainly many findings and recommendations that will be meaningful for members of APPAM based on their own experiences.
There’s also work the APPAM can contribute to today in conveying important information about gaps in evidence. One recommendation from the Commission was that every Federal department should establish a learning agenda, a document that outlines areas where more evidence is needed to inform decisions about policies and programs. APPAM could consider, for example, using the annual conference as an opportunity to provide input to agency learning agendas by highlighting critical areas that emerge during concurrent sessions that have implications on agency data collection, data sharing, policy research, or evaluation activities.
We hope that professional associations like APPAM will begin to seriously discuss strategies for supporting the implementation of the recommendations as well as other strategies, such as those needed at the state and local level. The progress moving forward for improving how we generate and use evidence cannot be accomplished solely by the former commissioners and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s initiative, but will require much broader participation and engagement from all corners of the evidence-building community. BPC will be providing routine updates about the progress of implementing the legislation, and more details will be available soon on the initiative’s webpage.
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