GAO Identifies Opportunities to Strengthen Federal Evidence-Based Policymaking

Published: July 28, 2021

Federal Market AnalysisBig DataGovernment Performance

The GAO surveyed federal managers in 2020 to gauge access to evidence-based decision-making activities.

The case for evidence-based policymaking in the federal space is mounting. While evidence-based activities have long been around, the Evidence Act of 2018 provided a framework for agencies to bolster approaches to evidence building. The legislation enacted in January 2019, for example, calls on agencies to develop learning agendas with questions and activities that achievable through data collection and analysis. Such evidence can drive U.S. priorities and measure progress in areas ranging from health care to homeland security.

Given this, the GAO released the first in a series of reports related to the Evidence Act’s provisions. The report surveyed a random sample of 3,993 federal managers across 24 major federal agencies between July and December of last year. The survey gauges the managers’ views on the availability and quality of evidence at their respective agencies, and the use of the data in different decision-making activities. Activities that ensure decision makers have the evidence they need, according to the GAO, include performance information, program evaluations, statistical data, and other research and analysis.

The survey results provide government-wide averages as well as individual agency levels, to help identify where opportunities exist to strengthen federal evidence-based policymaking.

Overall, 42.4% of federal managers reported they had quality evidence for selected management activities. These activities include developing program strategies, setting priorities and goals, adopting new approaches, coordinating program efforts and avoiding duplicative activities. Nonetheless, the lowest scoring activity among federal agencies is using evidence to information the public about a program’s performance, with an average 31% reporting using evidence for that action.

Moreover, 47.2% of survey respondents said they had the staff with skills needed to collect and analyze performance information, while only 45.4% said they had staff with skills needed to collect and analyze data research and analysis. Additionally, 43.2% said they had the staff with skills to integrate and compare findings from performance measurement, program evaluations and other sources of evidence.  

Comparably, 44.7% said they had the tools needed to collect and analyze performance information, and 36% had tools to collect and analyze data, research and analysis. A higher number, 62.6% of federal managers, said their agency had the tools needed to protect the privacy and security of data.

Concerning individual agencies, the GAO identified 16 agencies that “were statistically significantly different from the government-wide average on one or more questions related to existing evidence-building capacity.” The chart below depicts the nine agencies that had results statistically significantly lower when compared to the government-wide average on one or more questions.

Though the federal government has taken strides to improve evidence-based policymaking and activities, there is remains much work left to do. The GAO recommends OMB work with OPM and relevant interagency councils, such as the CDO Council, to leverage survey results as an additional source to inform evidence-building capacities. OMB has been active in issuing guidance surrounding Evidence Act implementation. Here, the GAO recommends the agency use the results to develop and prioritize cross-cutting opportunities to build evidence-based capabilities across multiple agencies.