What does the new evidence-based policymaking scorecard mean for skills advocates? 

By Rachel Vilsack, November 10, 2021

A new scorecard highlights progress made by federal agencies in evidence-based policymaking. This blog post explains the background behind the scorecard, how federal agencies are being evaluated, and what this means for skills advocates.

What is evidence-based policymaking?

Skills training policies should be based on evidence of what works to create greater access to and better outcomes from our workforce investments. Evidence can include performance outcomes measures, the collection and use of data, and assessments and evaluations that measure the impact of a program on the population the program intends to serve.

Good data can help us better understand what’s working, and what’s not, in terms of creating greater access to workforce investments and in reporting the measurable economic gains that advance career pathways, build wealth, and expand the well-being of workers. The development – and implementation – of federal investments, whether through the budget reconciliation process or the eventual reauthorization of the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act, must include data-informed and evidence-based policies.

What is the Evidence Act?

Evidence is central to how policymakers should start each decision-making process – use data and learn from program evaluation, adopt policies, and direct funding so that it achieves the best results. The federal Foundations of Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, or Evidence Act, provides a roadmap. The Evidence Act expands the ability of the federal government to use evidence and data to make federal policies and programs more effective and efficient.

The Evidence Act, which was signed into law in 2019, requires federal agencies to:

  • Develop a plan for evidence-based policymaking. Federal agencies’ plans should include policy questions, descriptions of data collection, and analytical methods. Each agency would also appoint a Chief Evaluation Officer who would assess the agency’s evaluation capacities, develop the agency’s evaluation plan, and implement it.
  • Improve researchers’ access to government data. Federal agencies must have an open data plan, or data that is valuable and will be available to the public, an inventory of data assets, and a transparent and secure process for accessing data.
  • Protect confidential information by restricting the disclosure of individual information, without the consent of the individual.

How are federal agencies doing so far?

Recently, the national non-profit Results for America released its 2021 Federal “Invest in What Works” Standards of Excellence scorecard. The report highlights how nine federal agencies – that collectively oversee more than $286 billion in federal investments annually – are building and using evidence and data in their budget, policy, and management decisions. The Federal Standards of Excellence scorecard was developed to assess how federal agencies are implementing the Evidence Act.

Results for America assesses federal agencies on 10 criteria. Some of these criteria include:

  • Leadership – Does the agency have senior staff members with the authority and budget to build and use evidence to inform its major policy and program decisions?
  • Research and evaluation capacityDoes the agency have an evaluation policy plan and learning agenda, and did it publicly release program evaluations? 
  • Performance management and continuous improvement Does the agency have outcome-focused goals and aligned program measures? Does it collect and use data to improve outcomes?
  • Data Does the agency collect, analyze, share, and use high-quality administrative and survey data to improve outcomes?
  • Use of evidence in competitive and non-competitive grant programs – Does the agency use evidence of effectiveness when allocating funds in its grant programs?

Some key findings from this report that skills advocates should pay attention to include:

  • The Department of Labor has recently appointed a chief innovation officer, a position left unfilled during the last administration. Three of the department’s five largest competitive grants require grantees to provide information about their past performance and use of evidence-informed strategies in their grant applications. The agency also held a data equity challenge for researchers studying the impact of agency policies on traditional underserved communities, with a goal to provide practical solutions to reduce disparities in outcomes. Lastly, the agency will also center equity in expanding its evidence-based knowledge. Their draft evidence-building plan for FY22-26 includes equity in employment and training programs and barriers to women’s employment as key learning priorities.
  • The Department of Education expanded its data staff to support its chief data officer, produced a series of evidence-based COVID-19 resources, and shared disaggregated data to help inform efforts to support students with disabilities, English Learners, students experiencing homelessness, and others during the pandemic. Disaggregated data can help the federal, state, and local policymakers make smarter, well-informed decisions.
  • The Administration for Children and Families (within the Department of Health and Human Services) helped build the capacity of grantees to support culturally responsive evaluation through centers and toolkits, and is developing a new African American Children and Families Research Center to support research on the needs of African American populations served by the administration. Key topics of interest for the Center will include research on educational and employment experiences and outcomes, experiences with human services, discrimination, and the effects of criminal justice system involvement.

What’s the role of equity in evidence-based policymaking?

It’s essential to evaluate federal programs on their impact on the populations they were designed to serve, especially programs that target economically marginalized or historically underserved people. Given the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color, immigrants, and those with a high school diploma or less, the need for data-informed policies will ensure that those most impacted benefit from economic recovery investments.

In 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration boosted the evidence-driven efforts of federal agencies through executive actions, Evidence Act guidance, and American Rescue Plan Act guidance to help state and local governments maximize the impact of their recovery funds. One such Executive Order (EO 13985) specifically called upon the federal government to advance racial equity and support for underserved communities. This Executive Order cites a lack of data disaggregation – by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, and other key demographic variables – as a factor that hampers efforts to measure and advance equity. For instance, without data disaggregation, we won’t know if skills training investments support equitable outcomes for people of color and other populations previously held back from education and training opportunities.

Taken together, the Evidence Act and guidance from the Biden-Harris Administration provides federal agencies with a roadmap to use evidence and data to inform the public investments needed to drive an equitable recovery.

Rachel Vilsack, an NSC senior fellow, serves on Results for America’s Federal Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee provide expertise to help increase the value, credibility, visibility, and relevance of Results for America’s Standards of Excellence.