When presidents send budget proposals to Congress, they include funding requests and broad policy statements. But what lies beneath the surface is often critical for understanding real priorities.
The broad contours of President Donald Trump’s latest budget will come as no surprise: increases to defense spending, cuts to nondefense spending and a goal to eventually reduce the deficit long after his administration is gone.
But here’s something about the budget that wasn’t as predictable: The Trump administration is leading the government to become more evidence-based. Seriously. And in a responsible way.
It’s not a perfect strategy, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. But the Trump plan suggests federal agencies are increasingly analyzing data and applying useful insights to decisionmaking. Here are four key policy takeaways from the latest budget proposal:
1) Affirms support for the Evidence Act
Earlier this year, Trump signed the bipartisan Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. The administration has prioritized this new law in its budget materials — a promising signal that agencies will take it seriously. The law calls on agencies to rigorously evaluate programs, improve accessibility to data, make more data publicly available and strengthen privacy protections. The budget, and a forthcoming Federal Data Strategy, will set the stage for how key provisions of this important law will be implemented. Congress and the American public should call on the White House and federal agencies to rapidly take steps to make progress on this law, including by ensuring that senior leaders are tapped to implement it.
2) Announces launch of a Federal Data Service
In 2017, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking concluded that the country needed a better approach for linking sensitive data across government agencies in a privacy-protective way. Its members recommended a new agency to pioneer approaches to more effectively use government data. The administration just endorsed the idea — or at least a similar concept — by proposing the Federal Data Service at the Commerce Department. While more details are needed to gauge the full merits of the proposal, the goals to improve stakeholder access and use of data should be applauded. Congress should give this idea immediate consideration and ensure that accountability and transparency approaches are front and center in the design of this new agency.
3) Plans to improve economic statistics
The budget request includes proposals to bolster economic statistics and improve capacity for program evaluation. One idea is to consolidate the Bureau of Labor Statistics with other agencies responsible for producing the country’s economic indicators. In addition to operational efficiencies, merging these agencies could produce more reliable and useful statistics. Another idea is to allow access to income information compiled in the National Directory of New Hires for research and evaluation. This minor tweak could extend the Evidence Act’s impact and would greatly reduce the cost of evaluating program outcomes about employment and income security policies where improved earnings or self-sufficiency are core goals. Together, these are promising ideas that Congress should advance in support of more evidence-based policymaking.
4) Supports the 2020 census
Every 10 years, the Census Bureau counts every person in the country. While there remains uncertainty about what questions will be asked next year, the importance of an accurate census is clear in the Trump budget. Researchers, policymakers and the business community all use census data to inform a broad range of decisions, from siting new business locations to benchmarking samples in household surveys. Congress must ensure that the census receives the necessary resources for an accurate count.
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While there are promising areas for science and evidence in the budget, it is by no means perfect. There are places where evidence was weaponized, seemingly applied to decisions after they were made to justify program cuts. There are funding reductions to a core part of government’s evidence ecosystem: science research agencies and federal statistical agencies. Mandates for agencies in the Evidence Act are not paired with corresponding funding to ensure effective implementation. Congress will need to weigh these funding issues carefully against other priorities.
But the Trump budget at least includes clear policies that enable and support government’s science and evidence infrastructure that we can all get behind. Congress should quickly take up these important ideas, while continuing to support effective oversight of the Evidence Act.
It’s time for our government to become more evidence-based, and some Trump policies are headed in that direction.
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. He wrote this article for CQ-Roll Call.