Our Opportunity for More Data-Driven Nonprofit Program Evaluation

By Tracey Gyateng and Beth Simone Noveck. Posted originally in SSIR on January 24, 2018

banner-03-webLast November, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017 (HR 4174), and it looks slated to pass the Senate this year. In an era known for the absence of legislative consensus, this bipartisan bill addresses one of the few issues on which there is near universal agreement: To improve the effective delivery of social policies and programs, we need the efficient production and use of rigorous evidence to become a routine part of government operations and public policymaking. Although government has long collected administrative data, increasingly in digital form, government agencies have struggled to create the infrastructure and acquire the skills needed to make use of sensitive and personally identifiable information to improve governing.

As urgent as the legislation’s provisions are to support more evidence-based policymaking by mandating an inventory of all government data, the bill focuses exclusively on enabling government to use its own data better without considering the needs of nonprofits. This is a mistake.

Nonprofits represent more than five percent of GDP in the United States, and provide direct social services and assistance to millions of people, often with the support of government grants. If we do not make the same data infrastructure — including tools, governance mechanisms, and trained personnel — available to the social sector, it is as if we are building a road designed for trucks, but not cars. Before we can ensure that taxpayer dollars are well-spent on programs that work, we need to create a data infrastructure that enables both government agencies and nonprofits to use administrative data to evaluate their programs.

Fortunately, there exists the means to do so without new legislation, namely by enabling the nonprofit sector to take advantage of “data labs” — systems governments and universities are building for program evaluation that securely provide administrative data for research and evaluation purposes.

Read the full article here.