Experts urge OMB to ensure agencies budget for evidence-based policymaking

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The Office of Management and Budget should ensure agencies budget for evidence-based policymaking in their fiscal 2023 requests to Congress to address national crises, said members of the evidence-building community Wednesday.

Agencies can use set-aside authorities, working capital funds and recaptured unobligated balances to implement OMB‘s June memo, which outlined a process for developing learning agendas and annual evaluation plans.

While the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act established critical leadership positions and activities to facilitate a culture of evidence, it amounted to an unfunded mandate that only applied to the 24 CFO Act agencies and still has guidance outstanding. OMB’s latest memo applies to all agencies and establishes evaluation as a “central function” of government, on par with budgeting and human resources, but doesn’t fully address the “long-underfunded” evidence-building community, said Nick Hart, president of the Data Foundation, during an event it hosted.

“Having just issued this memo saying agencies need resources, I might even lean in here and say it’s incumbent on OMB to make sure that’s part of budget requests that are sent to Congress,” Hart said. “It’s also incumbent on Congress, having authorized the Evidence Act, to ensure agencies have the resources to make it real.”

The Evidence Act required agencies to appoint a chief data officer, evaluation officer and statistical official, but the teams of the latter two are often small or nonexistent and under-resourced. For that reason they need to strengthen collaboration with each other, which OMB’s memo doesn’t address, said Melissa Chu, deputy director of the Committee on National Statistics at the National Academies and a former Department of Veterans Affairs and Census Bureau staffer.

Statistical agencies can help evaluation offices by determining what data is useful, promoting data stewardship and scientific integrity, providing technical assistance for quantitative efforts, and strategizing around evidence use. Collaboration is especially important because the Evidence Act directs statistical agencies to expand data access for evidence building, but Phase 3 guidance hasn’t been released by OMB — nor has Phase 2 guidance for the OPEN Government Data Act.

“There is an entire [Evidence Act] title around data governance and open data, for which there is not currently guidance,” Hart said. “There is an entire title around confidential data, protection of statistical information for which the regulations and guidance have not yet been issued, so if we want the ecosystem to succeed, we also need to keep those pieces moving along as well.”

Meanwhile evaluation offices can help boost the social and policy relevance of statistical agencies, Chu said.

OMB did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

While CDOs, evaluation officers and statistical officials serve as the pillars of evidence building, they may lack the expertise needed to form partnerships for additional resources. For that, additional team members are needed to address stakeholder engagement and also equity, said Lisa Aponte-Soto, a board member at the American Evaluation Association.

“One thing I would caution is there seems to be a lot of intentionality around providing clarity in operationalizing certain terminology but not around diversity and equity,” Aponte-Soto said. “And I would like more clarity around that.”

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chief data officer (CDO), Data Foundation, evaluation officer, Evidence-based policymaking, Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, Nick Hart, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), OPEN Government Data Act