Turning data into policy: Child Trends’ recommendations

BlogEarly Childhood DataFeb 2 2017

The bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking was established in 2016 “to develop a strategy for increasing the availability and use of data in order to build evidence about government programs, while protecting privacy and confidentiality.” Created through legislation jointly sponsored by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the Commission has been holding public hearings in several locations across the country throughout the fall of 2016 and winter of 2017 to inform its recommendations.

As the nation’s leading nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families through high-quality research, Child Trends is excited about this new Commission. We submitted written comments to the Commission in late November, and here we summarize a few of the most critical ones.  You can read our full comments here:

  • Don’t forget about the children. Whenever we think about using research and data to inform policymaking, we must take into account what we know about children and families and the policies and practices that support them. In 2016, the federal government was projected to spend $309 billion on children. This is a significant investment and supports a broad range of programs and services on children to protect their health, education, nutrition, and other needs. Policymakers require the best data to make sure the funds they allocate are used efficiently to improve outcomes for children.
  • Make sure we have good data. If we want policymakers to use data to make good decisions, they need to be supplied with good data. This means data that include a more complete picture of all populations. It also means that there are consistent definitions of things across data sets, so we can make accurate comparisons across programs and outcomes. Good data measure what is intended, and is up-to-date and accurate.
  • Facilitate communication between data systems. Many children and their families access multiple services, and each of these services collect data on those children and their families. Without “linking” these various data sources, we tell a limited story of the children and families in question. We cannot know whether families are receiving duplicative services, or if participating in multiple services improves long-term outcomes, such as school performance or avoiding criminal involvement. When we can streamline data-sharing, using procedures that protect confidentiality, we can have a better idea of who is receiving one or more services, and how their participation is related to desired outcomes.
  • Independence and credibility matter. Research on the use of evidence in policymaking suggests that leadership and staff use individuals and organizations they trust to learn about relevant research. Without trust and ongoing partnership, research often goes unused. Over the years, Child Trends and other independent organizations have used data to shine a light on a number of important issues. Because our work is independent and credible, it has been valued by policymakers at all levels of government and across the political spectrum. But we need continued access to good data (with appropriate protections for confidentiality and privacy) in order to achieve our mission of improving the lives of children and families.
  • Encourage communication of research to broad audiences. Once researchers have gathered data and summarized research, that information should be shared in a way that makes sense and is relevant to decision-makers. Sharing a peer-reviewed article won’t likely help a busy policymaker know what she can do to help children in her community. Information needs to be tailored for different audiences. At Child Trends, we strive to provide timely research-based information to policymakers in clear, easy-to-read formats that support decision-making on behalf of children and families.

Research and data gathering are essential stops on the continuum between policy decisions and program improvement. They are used at multiple time points to inform program design and implementation. Programs at all stages of implementation require research to support and guide their decision-making. A Commission that supports the use of evidence in policymaking is both exciting and critical, and has the potential to improve the lives of children and families.  We look forward to continuing to support the work of the Commission and policymakers in the future.