Sometimes people only see what they want to see. The dichotomy of our times is that government collects voluminous rich data, with over 260,000 datasets being made public and many more considered too sensitive for eyes other than those with a need to know. Yet, too often, too many policy and operations decisions are made on gut instinct and political popularity rather than data.
Some questions are portentous. What are terrorists plotting, and what actions will thwart them? What strain of flu is coming this winter, what vaccine will protect the most vulnerable, and must it be rationed? With demands that the opioid crisis placed on the foster family network, what programs are needed by affected children? What highway investments will best reduce traffic accidents?
Some questions are urgent, and decisions cannot wait for an in-depth study. What havoc will tomorrow’s blizzard create at which airports? A massive forest fire burns out of control; what citizens and buildings are in its path, what actions should be taken, and how should they be prioritized?
Others are more customary, involving longstanding programs with massive budget outlays and enduring political interest group support. In a period of strong economic growth, what adjustments are needed in programs serving SNAP recipients to help them increase their incomes and self-sufficiency? As the population ages, what regional demographic shifts will occur, and what is the impact on federal agency regional operations?
There is a huge premium on arriving at the right answers. Even when lives are not at stake, budgets and credibility are at risk, and getting it wrong invites very public criticism, even recrimination. In OMB Memorandum M-19-23, Acting Director Russell Vought stated, “Despite previous efforts and resource commitments, federal agencies often lack the data and evidence necessary to make critical decisions about program operations, policy, and regulations and to gain visibility into the impact of resource allocation on achieving program objectives."
Vought continued: "Investing in and focusing on the management and use of data and evidence across the federal government will enable agencies to shift away from low-value activities toward actions that will support decision-makers: linking spending to program outputs, delivering on mission, better managing enterprise risks, and promoting civic engagement and transparency.”