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Opinion: Is There Room for Science and Evidence in Trump’s Budget?

Administration should not ignore this key protocol in policymaking

President Donald Trump would be wise to follow the model of his predecessors, including Barack Obama, in using science and evidence in his budget’s policy proposals, Hart and Shea write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump would be wise to follow the model of his predecessors, including Barack Obama, in using science and evidence in his budget’s policy proposals, Hart and Shea write. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

More than a year after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, it is surprisingly difficult to know where the administration stands in the debate about evidence-based policymaking. Inconsistent signals across government agencies suggest the lack of a uniform philosophy about how science and evidence inform policy decisions that affect the American public.

Policymaking informed by evidence can improve outcomes, make public policies more effective and efficient, and help restore flagging trust in our government institutions. Because of the existing bipartisan support for evidence-based policymaking, we remain optimistic that the administration can and will responsibly support the use of science and evidence.

The confusion created over the past year could all end soon. This month, the president is scheduled to release his fiscal 2019 budget request, a document submitted to Congress with policy proposals that will affect the entire government. Following the model of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the budget may shed much-needed light on the administration’s approach to using science and evidence.

This will be the first Trump administration budget since the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking submitted its bipartisan and unanimous recommendations to the president and Congress in September 2017. The administration has been conspicuously quiet about whether it supports implementing the suggestions to improve access to government data, strengthen privacy protections, and grow the capacity to build and use evidence in developing government policies and programs.

But the upcoming budget will contain telltale signs of the administration’s support for evidence-based policymaking. Here are four key areas to watch:

1. Evidence commission recommendations

The evidence commission offered 22 specific recommendations that the administration could choose to act on — in many cases, without requiring new legislation. The allocation of resources or affirmative policy statements in the budget documents will not only indicate the general level of support, but also tell us what specific steps the administration is willing to take to help programs perform effectively.

2. Evidence as a tool, not a weapon

One perpetual fear of government program managers engaged in developing evidence is that the information is only used by politicians to justify funding cuts or program terminations. This long-feared tactic by government agencies presents a major obstacle to convincing managers to engage in meaningful evaluation activities. Whether the administration chooses to weaponize evaluation will be reflected in how it justifies program funding reductions. If negative evaluations are used to suggest program or operational improvements, the administration will be seen as using evidence as a learning tool, not a weapon.

3. Evidence theme in President’s Management Agenda

The budget may outline a macro strategy for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of government, typically presented as a President’s Management Agenda. Based on recent administrations, the plan could include multiple major themes. If one of them is an evidence-related theme, it could be cast as a strategy for improving the economy and reducing the size of government. The theme, though, could also reflect suggestions about better using and making available government data.

4. Innovative approaches to generating evidence

Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations advanced efforts to incorporate more evidence into formula grant decisions, supported the use of waiver authorities to test out innovative policy ideas, and encouraged the use of innovation funds to continuously identify better strategies for improving programs. Numerous programs were redesigned over the last decade to foster the use of evidence in allocating resources, including the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and the Home Visiting Program at the Department of Health and Human Services. Whether these evidence-based approaches and programs are continued or expanded in the budget will reflect the overarching philosophy of the administration to support innovation.

The conversation about responsibly using evidence shouldn’t be a partisan one. The U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking was a bipartisan effort. Government needs credible and valid information to make the best policy decisions possible for the American public, regardless of which party controls its executive and legislative branches.

Whether improving health care, strengthening the economy or protecting the environment, the use of science and evidence is an essential part of good government. We hope the Trump administration agrees and uses the budget to set the record straight. It’s certainly time for the administration to make science and evidence a key protocol in policymaking.

Nick Hart is the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative. He previously worked at the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Trump, Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

Robert Shea is a former Republican appointee to the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and a principal at Grant Thornton. He previously served as the associate director for administration and government performance at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governanceFollow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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