Hard truths behind the fight to run government like a business

“Government needs to run more like business” is now so widely seen as a positive political opinion, that it has become detached from a nuanced understanding of either government or business. And yet, this idea offers a rare chance for bipartisanship in the long run. A more effective government could advance social programs typically favored by progressives while reducing its costs and footprint, as traditionally demanded by conservatives. Making policy, not based on gut but based on evidence, is critical to figuring out “what works” in government. The truly bipartisan legislation that passed the House in November, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (Evidence-Based Policymaking Act), seeks to advance that cause.

The Clinton and Obama Administrations had been determined to advance government performance, signing into law the Government Performance and Results Act and Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, respectively. Both bills laid out architecture to measure the effectiveness of government programs and ensure federal spending was put toward programs based on evidence of success, rather than emotion or political favoritism. The Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which emerged from the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, seeks to expand such performance management frameworks, to mandate: accounting for how to measure effectiveness be considered at the program design phase of new initiatives, systematized data throughout agencies, and, potentially, creation of a National Secure Data Service. The final conditions will depend on whether the Senate takes up the bill (co-authored by Democratic Senator and hard-charger in the Trump era Patty Murray), and which provisions survive.

Beyond program performance, the Obama Administration also embraced the non-government benefits offered by the data at the government’s disposal as a service to American citizens and the commercial sector. Through powerful policy statements like the Open Data Executive Order and Open Data Policy, the creation of data.gov, the ongoing open-source efforts of Project Open Data, and its eventual embrace of the DATA Act, the previous Administration demonstrated its belief in the emergent saying, “data is the new oil.” The Administration offered publicly available data to improve the public’s oversight of the government and to be harnessed by businesses and individuals who could find an innovative purpose for it. The Evidence-Based Policymaking Act would build on that by including the main components of the OPEN Government Data Act, which seeks to cement the government’s ongoing open data efforts into law while providing much-needed technology and training for the federal workforce to grow these efforts – investing in the government’s human capital the way businesses have for decades.

If we were running government like a business, we would note that either the Pentagon has a math problem, or that ISIS has posed a major recruitment challenge.

Ironically, it may still be unlikely for both chambers to pass what appears to be a broadly popular measure. At this point, the Trump Administration appears allergic to success and increasingly focused on petty arguments and extracting payback from political enemies. Of course, it isn’t just Trump – many Republicans have moved steadily away from evidence-based policies since the 1990s. The more extreme wing of the Republican Party has a decidedly anti-evidence climate change policy, and the Steve Bannon-ist wing would roll back all advancement since The Enlightenment if given the chance. And yet – the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Act was introduced in the House by Speaker Paul Ryan and passed the Republican-controlled body with bipartisan support. While the Trump Administration has not yet weighed in on the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, it has generally been quick to embrace the data-driven ideas of the Obama Administration as one of the few policy areas where it has not reflexively worked to spite its predecessor.

Lest we get our hopes too high, it is fair to say that evidence-based policy is often a fantasy of nerds but rarely a priority of politicos. As one of your authors can attest, counterterrorism policy is many times made based on emotion rather than evidence. However, as your other author can attest, open data and evidence-based methods can comprise a catalyst for achieving public policy goals and also facilitating strong oversight. The DATA Act — although not yet all it should be — is already making the government’s spending data more transparent so that watchdog organizations, journalists, and taxpayers can better understand and oversee federal spending. At the same time, it is providing more useful data to managers across the federal space and helping them with analysis as they make tough decisions about their programs.

For example, when ISIS arose as a threat, they were estimated to have around 20,000 members, yet now the Pentagon claims as many as 70,000 ISIS members may have been killed. If we were running government like a business, we would note that either the Pentagon has a math problem, or that ISIS has posed a major recruitment challenge. However, preventing recruitment has received scarce funding by the U.S. government, despite the fact that a National Institute of Justice study evaluated a community engagement program in Maryland and concluded it effectively reduces recruitment to terrorism. Moreover, countering terrorist propaganda has been shown to be effective in some contexts; some countering violent extremism experts have even gleaned insights from putting ISIS propaganda data on Kaggle’s open datasets. Evidence-based policymaking that relies on facts and data is critical to oversight and effectiveness – but policy based on emotions and politics all too often drives this generation of political leaders, to the detriment of our governance and our shared security.

Regardless of the outcome of the current legislation, hope is reasonable for the next generation of policymakers. While contemporary American politics may feel like an intransigent self-licking ice cream cone of a dumpster fire, there will be a next generation of leaders. Millennials grew up with the internet, came of age with “design thinking,” and can major in Data Science. As they progress professionally in public service and related fields – as the junior staffers of 18F and Cass Sunstein’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs graduate into sub-Cabinet and elected positions – a wave of evidence-based policy and open data should begin to take hold. That is, assuming the cooler heads of today’s policymakers can keep our Republic stable enough to set that stage.

Ryan B. Greer is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a Fellow with the New America Foundation. He served at the State Department and the White House National Security Council during the Obama Administration. 

Matthew Rumsey is an independent consultant who has worked with organizations like the Data Foundation and the Center for Open Data Enterprise. Previously, he was a senior policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation where he managed federal data policy initiatives and helped draft the OPEN Government Data Act.