Washington, DC – Earlier this week, former Speaker of the House and American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan served as one of the featured speakers at the 2021 GovDATAx Virtual Conference. The annual conference, held virtually in 2021, brings together leaders from across the country who share a commitment to developing data systems and analytics that improve people’s lives. The focus of this year’s conference was on how the federal government can lead data modernization efforts and align data and delivery needs to achieve better outcomes for Americans.
In a conversation with Mimi Geerges of Government Matters, Speaker Ryan discussed his efforts to move the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act into law. The legislation, which Ryan authored with Democratic Senator Patty Murray, modernized how the federal government collects data, analyzes information, uses, and safeguards it. As Ryan noted, a real-world example of evidence-based policymaking improving outcomes is the Nurse-Family Partnership. This June, Ryan met with administrators, nurses, mothers and children who were participating in the program, which has been validated by dozens of randomized controlled trials.
The importance of this topic was succinctly captured by Ryan, who said:
“As a person who practiced in government and who practiced politics and who worked in Congress, using data as an argument is far better than partisanship. It is far better at breaking the loggerheads and the many political impasses between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, because when it comes to data, it usually can cut through all of that and really get government working.
“At the end of the day, I really believe that if you’re concerned about polarization in politics, as I’m sure most Americans are, I think data is a really good way out of that. If you’re concerned about making sure your taxpayer dollars go to their intended uses, data is a way to make sure of this. If you want to get people up and out of poverty in a meaningful, lasting way by going at the root causes of poverty, data is a great way to do that. I think data is the real linchpin to making all of this work.”
To watch Speaker Ryan’s remarks at the GovDatax 2021 Conference, please click here. Excerpts of his comments, edited lightly for clarity, follow.
Q. How is the Federal Government doing in using data to promote better public policies?
“Well, we’ve got a long way to go but we’ve seen a few good steps in the right direction. Back when I started this, I was looking for a partner to make this bipartisan. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) is a good friend of mine and we partnered up to create the Evidence Commission, and the Evidence Commission put together a very good report on how best to have evidence-based policymaking in government and on how to open data for researchers so we can be better-informed policymakers focusing on results and outcomes, not just inputs.
“The Commission gave us its report, we put it into the Evidence Act, and passed it into law. So, I would say we’re on to a good track but now it’s all about executing in the federal government… We still have a ways to go to execute and implement the Evidence Act, but it’s a very good step in the right direction and I’m very excited about it.
“I think data, frankly, is becoming cool again. I think, in this day of COVID-19 and all the hospitalizations statistics and unemployment rates, people are beginning to realize that data can make an enormous difference in affecting public policy and make a difference. Frankly, as a recovering politician, what data does is it helps depolarize and take the partisanship out of these public policy debates and that was one of my main reasons for wanting to do this.”
Q. What more can Congress do to advance evidence-based policymaking?
“Congress recently reauthorized the National Science Foundation in what is called the National Science Foundation Act and it has the National Secure Data System (NSDS) pilot project in it. That’s a very important step in the right direction, but a National Secure Data System should be made permanent so that researchers can get good access to data, so data can be made secure and government agencies can really improve their muscle memory for how to not just how collect data and to secure data, but how to use data.
“We still have got a way to go there but I think we’re on the right path. I think fully authorizing the National Secure Data Service would be a really good step in the right direction but we have a pilot that is being launched, which is typically what you do on your way toward making something permanent.”
Q: What is the role of federal agencies in advancing this type of policy-making? What comes next?
“It is really OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, that is the [agency] that leads this. The last administration released what we call Phase 1, which is basically setting the learning agendas and putting them in place for all the government agencies. Phase 2 involves open data and access management. Phase 3 is utilizing that data and access for statistical purposes, paying for program evaluations, and so going through those phases, that has to be done by OMB and it’s on the Biden Administration to make sure that not only is data collected but the silos are reduced so data and agencies can speak to each other.
“Security is paramount, especially with all the cyber-attacks these days, but the learning that comes from the data and the breaking down of the silos and the takeaways are really important so that policymakers are informed about what works and what doesn’t work.
“Let’s find what works and what doesn’t work. Let’s follow the evidence and let’s follow the data so that we can make sure that the things we’re trying to do in government, namely getting people out of poverty for example, are actually successful and working. And what that means is we can build and scale and replicate [successful programs] across the country.
“Look at MIECHV and its Nurse-Family Partnership Program. It’s one of those programs that was done with data…. President George Bush started it, President Barack Obama continued it, and President Donald Trump reauthorized it. These were three very different presidents, three very different administrations, but the data showed that Nurse-Family Partnerships, through the MIECHV program, work. Young, expectant mothers were learning how to raise their infant children and the ratio of success shown in the data was really clear. There is a good example that if you do something like that, the federal government and its poverty-fighting strategies can really move the needle.
“This is not partisan. This is not political. It is just what works and what doesn’t work. That, to me, is what can be the promise of this and it really comes down to the Office of Management and Budget executing on these things.
Q. What are the benefits of the National Secure Data System?
“What the National Secure Data System is right now is a pilot project that Congress authorized when they did the National Science Foundation reauthorization bill. It basically sets up a system whereby government not only collects data but also secures that data.
“In this day of cyber-attacks, you have to have good security for your data. You need to have privacy protections and data security, but also data dissemination so that statistical researchers at universities and nonprofits can get this data and find out what works and what doesn’t work and break down the silos, because right now, in the 21st century, you still have siloed data that doesn’t all doesn’t cross reference and doesn’t talk with each other.
“Getting researchers, not only in government but also outside of government, to have a system like this NSDS is really the step in the process you need to execute correctly so we truly are collecting and using data, making sure that people’s privacy rights are secure, making sure that data security is up to snuff, but then researchers can make sure we can evaluate what works and what doesn’t work, so that our taxpayer dollars are going to effective programs.”