08 April 2016

The Brookings Institution has argued that the real victim of the 2016 US Presidential election campaign is policy. But within the US Congress, evidence behind policy has become an area where a bipartisan approach has proved still to be possible. Back in the UK, Select Committees are making tentative steps to fill the evidence scrutiny void. Jill Rutter explains.

Anyone who has been watching BBC2’s riveting Inside Obama’s White House will have noted the US Administration’s increasing despair at navigating an increasingly polarised and hostile Congress. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Congress just passed the Murray-Ryan Bill, co-sponsored by Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, and Representative Paul Ryan (now House speaker) and a 2012 Republican vice-presidential candidate. Their bill, which was signed by the President at the end of March, establishes an ‘Evidence Based Policy Commission’ – a 15-member commission to 'study how best to strengthen and expand the use of data to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs and tax expenditures'. The move has been welcomed by both liberal and conservative commentators alike.

A particular focus for the commission is whether and how to create a 'clearing house' for programme and survey data that would allow better access to 'qualified researchers and officials'. To stress the bipartisan nature of the commission, the Senate and House majority and minority leaders get to nominate three members each – as does the President. Anti-gridlock is built in – a simple majority of eight determines the recommendations that then go back to Congress.

From a UK standpoint, one of the interesting features of the commission is that it is asked to treat tax expenditures (tax reliefs to achieve policy objectives) in the same way as Federal spending programs. We have argued that in the UK there is a double standard, with these reliefs not subject to the same degree of internal challenge before enactment, rarely evaluated, and poorly scrutinised.

While the US Congress has been getting to grips with evidence-based policy, UK Select Committees have started to engage with the evidence base behind individual policy areas. This started before the 2015 General Election with the Education Select Committee’s evidence check exercise, which we included as a case study in our report Show your Workings. Following that, the Science and Technology Committee launched a series of evidence checks on broad areas of policy where science evidence might be expected to play a role. It asked government to review the evidence behind the area, using the Evidence Transparency Framework we produced with Sense about Science and the Alliance for Useful Evidence, and then posted the responses on web fora, inviting external comment.

The first four evidence checks – on innovation in healthcare, flexible working, digital government and smart water meters –  provoked a varied response. The quality of the government responses was variable, with only the health response really engaging with the need to discuss the reasons behind what the Government was doing, rather than simply telling the Government’s story. There was little attempt to explain what the Government was trying to achieve in terms of policy objectives – the critical starting point for any policy discussion (perhaps because the framework – designed to be applied to announced policies as opposed to policy themes – did not make that explicit).

But also disappointing was the response. The first three attracted 0, 8 and 2 responses respectively – while the 586 responses to the smart meter check reflected public concern about the health implications of smart meter roll-out, rather than an in-depth analysis of the quality of the Government’s evidence base for its chosen approach. There is another chance to probe the latter at the oral hearing the committee will be holding (and it is currently inviting more conventional written evidence).

Another three evidence checks have just gone live – on driverless cars, genetic modification and gene editing, and smart cities. This is an opportunity for the expert community to engage and comment on the basis for government action. The fora will be open until early May. Anyone who has done work in these areas should take a look and join the discussion.

At the end of the exercise we will work with the committee to take stock of whether this is an approach that works – and how to make it more effective in the future. If the US Congress can come together and develop a consensus on evidence and policy, it should be fertile territory for the UK Parliament – if we can work out how best to bring MPs and experts together.