February 4, 2020
By AIF Staff
Last week, American Idea Foundation President and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan facilitated a conversation on how the federal government can promote public policies supported by results, data, and evidence.
The discussion centered around some key questions: Why does evidence matter for policy makers? How can we ensure data and analytics are collected and compiled by the federal government and academic organizations and then fed back to practitioners so they can improve their programs? What is the best way to eliminate bias and work to include a diverse array of data sources? How is the federal government utilizing data to meet the challenges facing our communities?
As Speaker Ryan made clear, the American Idea Foundation believes that if evidence and data shape our thinking and if policymakers learn lessons from programs that have demonstrated records of achievement, we can deliver better results in tackling problems and ultimately, improve people’s lives.
Joining Speaker Ryan on stage were Jim Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame’s Lab of Economic Opportunity, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, and Nick Hart of the Data Coalition. The three are widely regarded as leaders in pushing organizations and federal agencies to let data and evidence drive programmatic approaches and policy solutions.
The discussion, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, was covered by C-SPAN and can be viewed in its entirety here. A few excerpts follow.
The Role of the American Idea Foundation in Promoting Evidence-Based Policy:
“The reason why I founded the American Idea Foundation, which focused on fighting poverty, is to try and make that connection with the grassroots level where you have poverty-fighting entrepreneurs who have great ideas and great theories on how to move the needle. They have incredible credibility in their communities, but they don’t quite have the resources they need or the academically rigorous randomized-controlled trials and what not to build programs that can be scaled and replicated. That, to me, is the next wave and that’s what we’re doing at the American Idea Foundation.
“We are trying to make sure that everybody knows each other. You’ve got really sincere, authentic, effective grassroot poverty-fighters who fill a great need and have policy entrepreneurship that you want to encourage. You don’t want to sterilize that entrepreneurship, but you also have this great academic, rigorous new field that can show you have to really make a difference. It can say: Don’t waste time going down rabbit holes that have already been proven not to work. You also have all this private-sector philanthropy out there looking to make a difference but not knowing where to spend the money, so the connections they need to be made here are with the grassroot poverty entrepreneurs and the academics who have spent a lot of time testing theories and evaluating data….
“I really think that what the Evidence Act does is make those connections stick and combine the forces so it is not just a government responsibility but a societal responsibility to really get at the root causes of poverty, to really make a difference so we move the needle on poverty.”
Speaker Ryan on Why Evidence Matters in Polarized Political Environments:
“There are a whole host of influences on public policy. I spent 20 years in Congress working on such things and I think one of the most important influences, if not the most important influence on policy matters, is evidence: Evidence both for and against a proposition…
“People see these massive, partisan, polarizing ideological fights, and they basically get the sense that nothing can happen, nothing can move, nothing can get done. Now, ideology is not a bad thing. It works to order the world into a coherent philosophy. I consider myself an ideologue. But when you take your gaze away from the larger political fights of the day, you end up working up very discreet, very important policy issues that affect a huge number of people. Even in ideological polarizing times, so many good things that can make a huge difference in people’s lives, actually can get done. And I think that this is very, very important.
“There are massive areas of policy that were changed because there was almost overwhelming evidence around a policy change. One of my favorite pieces of this evidence is welfare reform in 1996. Welfare reform in 1996 didn’t happen because Bill Clinton was a moderate and Newt Gingrich forced him to act. Welfare reform in 1996 happened because there was an overwhelming amount of evidence that a work-first approach was the most effective way for improving the lives of those on the old AFDC program…
“So, what does this mean for current policy? Well, when I was Speaker, I can discuss a number of reforms that we passed in law, in large part because of the evidence that was at the core of the legislation on the policies we were considering.
“We got so many things done because we had overwhelming evidence, and we did these things in yes – polarizing times on big, bipartisan votes.”
Ryan on Utilizing Evidence to Promote Effective Public Policies:
“Criminal Justice Reform is a perfect example. Huge momentum for criminal justice reform existed because state-based reforms provided an incredible evidence base that one could reform our justice system while ensuring the safety of our citizens.
“Family First. A massive rewrite of our federal foster care program happened entirely because of state waiver authority showing that prevention was a huge benefit to at-risk youths.
“Pay for Success: With the passage of Social Impact Partnership and the Pay for Success Act, we provided funding for states to partner with the federal government, to identify key metrics for social programs and make payments when results are delivered. What a novel concept!
“One of my favorite programs is MICH-V, Maternal Infant and Childhood Visitation Program. This program was created under the Bush Administration. It was codified under the Obama Administration in the Affordable Care Act, and then it was reauthorized under President Trump.
“Finally, the passage of the Evidence Act, which is what we’re here to talk about today, has been key pushing the federal government into a more proactive stance and developing evaluation capabilities, improving data capabilities, and ensuring that data collected by the government remains secure. I could go on and on, but from areas as varied as education to healthcare, from criminal justice to child welfare, evidence has played a key role in policy development and enactment.
“While the media concentrates on the political day to day, policymakers will continue to pursue policy reforms – based on evidence, that will improve the lives of millions of people in the future.”
Propelled by Evidence, Attitudes Evolve on Criminal Justice Reform:
“I remember in the late 90’s, both parties were interested in cracking down on crime: Three strikes and you’re out. Bill Clinton campaigned on these things, so you basically had a bipartisan movement on criminalizing a lot of these things and frankly, we overreached. But the politics of changing that stance were very, very difficult and it wasn’t until a decade had passed and we started seeing actual evidence – mostly from states, that were showing that we were missing the mark.
“We saw that drug courts were better tools than throwing somebody in jail for 10 years for some kind of non-violent crime. Can you imagine the politics of voting against being tough on crime, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat? I changed my own position from watching this and reading about this, but to be able to not just change your position because you were intellectually convinced but because this was the wrong course and reform was the right course, was really no small feat!
“We passed criminal justice reform this last session and it took us a couple of years to make the effort work, but it was hugely bipartisan when we got it done. I saw that as an amazing example, in a very polarizing political time, where we actually saw that what we had done wasn’t working. We realized there was a better way. The better way was politically precarious but we ended up moving the politics in such a way that it became kind of a no-brainer. So, I guess the question is, what is the next lift like that? Where is data and evidence going to take us?
Ryan on Why Lawmakers should care about Evidence:
“A policymaker sometimes has preconceived notions of what’s right and what’s not, and sometimes they are not correct. I believe you have to have an open mind to look at real evidence and change your opinion as to what makes a difference and what can work. Criminal Justice Reform is an example of that.
“I think you have to have policymakers that have an open mind to looking at evidence and responding to it, but more importantly, I think we are going into the 21st century where data is going to be all-consuming. Data is going to be everywhere and we are going to be a data-based society. The question is: Are we getting ahead of it? Are we, as policymakers, going to make sure we take proactive measures to guarantee our privacy and to make sure that data goes where we want it to go, to whom we want it to go, and that’s what this is all about.
The data will help you better hone your measurements to make sure that the taxpayer dollars are actually going towards their intended benefit. This is what I would to people: Government is going to do this. Government will be involved in this space. Government will be fighting the War on Poverty forever. We will always be doing these programs, so why don’t we make sure it is effective and let’s try and shrink the size as best we can. I think those practical arguments are buttressed with good data and will help us make sure we get ahead of these things. I just think data and evidence helps you leapfrog what are stubborn, ideological, polarized expositions and gets you through them to make a good difference at the end of the day. We have done this episodically, now I think we have a chance to do it wholesale.”