This is a summary of the “The use of evidence in the American Congress: a recent document from the Bipartisan Policy Center“, published by the Ufficio Valutazione Impatto (Impact Assessment Office) of the Senate of the Italian Republic in July 2018.
Overview and Introduction
The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), an independent bipartisan think tank, published a paper titled, “Evidence use in Congress: Challenges for Evidence-Based Policymaking” discussing ways make evidence more accessible to members of Congress and their staffs for policy actions. The paper is divided into two volumes, summarized below. The first evaluates obstacles in Congress’ procedure and structure to using evidence. The second proposes solutions to the problems presented in the first.
Volume I opens with a definition of the BPC usage of evidence in the paper. It distinguishes between two types, both of which it seeks to promote: the first, statistical evidence, covers socio-economic data whereas the second, policy-specific data, covers all data referring to specific issues for which legislators craft policy, such as feasibility, impact, and cost-benefit studies. Then, it highlights benefits of evidence in policy making, such as solid judgement criteria for different proposals. It names key stakeholders in the rest of the text: Congress, the Executive, their respective agencies, such as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the academic and private sectors. Finally it evaluates Congress:
Obstacles to the Use of Evidence in Congress
Perceived Obstacles The first of the three obstacles the BPC discusses is perceived obstacles, that is, those that explain why Congress will sometimes not use evidence made available to it. The primary obstacles in this category highlighted are: Perceived Utility, Limited Credibility, Uncertain Relevancy, and Inconsistent Objectives. The first three regard how evidence is often discarded because it does not seem immediately useful, is not easy to verify the credibility, and/or its relevance is not apparent to non-technical persons. The final obstacle regards the difficulty in prioritizing evidence when policy must accommodate the interests of many different conflicting political groups.
Institutional Obstacles The kinds of obstacle, related to how Congress operate and create policy are, Collaborative Decision Processes, Political Competition, Differing Interpretations of Procedure, Insufficient Competence, and Communication Difficulties with the Executive. The first two regard political procedure: politics is a negotiation, debate, or battle between differing interests, putting evidence lower in priority. The third regards how the difficulty of balancing broad interests with specific ones can change whether evidence is relevant.
The fourth regards the difficulty of having a good knowledge on many specific, technical policy areas and the fifth speaks to issues coordinating the Executive’s research efforts with those of Congress.
Systematic Obstacles These obstacles speak to Congressional norms that define how and when policy can be made and are Rapidity, Poor Availability, Disincentives, Competing Sources, Cognitive Limits and Opacity. These speak to the limits of what is feasible in politics, namely that the quick pace at which Congress operates leaves little space for the time and energy required to understand and find good evidence. The final one, Lack of Research Overviews, puts additional emphasis on this difficulty, highlighting that there is no easy way to access the diversity of information that Congress procures or already researched.
Key Concepts for Solution Proposals The BPC draws three ideas from the issues it identified above that it believes will be helpful to crafting solutions. The first, Prioritization, encourages development of new Congressional routines to help with the management of evidence, such as having proper documentation. The second, Intermediation, speaks to the need to improve communication between Congress and researchers and to adapt to the speed at which policy moves. Transparency, the third, looks at ways to make accessible policy decisions and proceedings so that its evidence may be accessed in the future.
Overview The second volume, provides concrete proposals divided into three groups based on the Key Concepts above. Part A looks at ways to increase Congress’ ability to use evidence, Part B offers institutional reforms, and Part C offers procedural modifications.
Examination of Each Part
Part A In the interest of increasing Congress’ ability to use evidence in policy making, the first proposal recommends the definition of a protocol for receiving, evaluating, and interpreting evidence to make its communication clearer. The sixth proposal, similar to the first, looks for the creation of a database to allow the staff to more easily identify sources of research. The second through fifth aim to increase coordination between Congress and other sources of research including: universities, experts in the private sector, the Executive branch and its agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Congressional Agencies, like the CBO. Finally, the seventh through tenth proposals handle working with the Executive branch in more detail, such as having a research requirements for candidates for agencies, the development of learning agendas to develop key research questions, and additional budget appropriations. The most feasible proposals include the database and academic collaboration proposals, while the least feasible include confirmation procedure modifications.
Part B Part B focuses on institutional modifications to increase transparency for key research. The eleventh proposal advocates for a Joint Committee on Evidence that will aid stakeholders in creating policies for more effective evidence use. The twelfth focuses on appropriating more resources to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) so that it can better coordinate with state governments. The thirteenth recommends the creation of an Ombudsman’s office to mediate between sources of research, such as experts, and Congress. In terms of feasibility, the BPC believes that these structural changes are unlikely, if not very much so.
Part C The third category of solutions all propose innovations to Congressional procedure to facilitate evidence use. Proposals fourteen and seventeen organize and catalogue research. They propose the creation of a congressional research archive and portfolio reviews of all sources, including government agencies. The fifteenth and sixteenth pairs both advocate for biennial research plans with key research questions, either on the election or off year respectively. The eighteenth proposal proposes a biennial schedule for executive agency appropriations, both to reduce political conflict and give Congress time to do a regular review of their tasks when determining funding. The nineteenth and final proposal argues that the CBO’s annual report on the status of agency and federal program authorizations should be biennial to give more time for evidence to be considered. The last proposal, according to the BPC, is the most feasible, while the seventeenth is the least likely to be implemented.