The federal government––through efforts like the White House Year of Evidence for Action––has made a laudable push to ensure that policy decisions are grounded in empirical evidence. While these efforts acknowledge the importance of social, cultural and Indigenous knowledges, they do not draw adequate attention to the challenges of generating, operationalizing, and integrating such evidence in routine policy and decision making. In particular, these endeavors are generally poor at incorporating the living and lived experiences, knowledge, and values of the public. This evidence—which we call evidence about public values—provides important insights for decision making and contributes to better policy or program designs and outcomes.
The federal government should broaden institutional capacity to collect and integrate evidence on public values into policy and decision making. Specifically, we propose that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP):
- Provide a directive on the importance of public value evidence.
- Develop an implementation roadmap for integrating public value evidence into federal operations (e.g., describe best practices for integrating it into federal decision making, developing skill-building opportunities for federal employees).
Challenge and Opportunity
Evidence about public values informs and improves policies and programs
Evidence about public values is, to put it most simply, information about what people prioritize, care, or think about with respect to a particular issue, which may differ from ideas prioritized by experts. It includes data collected through focus groups, deliberations, citizen review panels, and community-based research, or public opinion surveys. Some of these methods rely on one-way flows of information (e.g., surveys) while others prioritize mutual exchange of information among policy makers and participating publics (e.g., deliberations).
Agencies facing complex policymaking challenges can utilize evidence about public values––along with expert- and evaluation-based evidence––to ensure decisions truly serve the broader public good. If collected as part of the policy-making process, evidence about public values can inform policy goals and programs in real time, including when program goals are taking shape or as programs are deployed.
Evidence about public values within the federal government: three challenges to integration
To fully understand and use public values in policymaking, the U.S. government must first broadly address three challenges.
First, the federal government does not sufficiently value evidence about public values when it researches and designs policy solutions. Federal employees often lack any directive or guidance from leadership that collecting evidence about public values is valuable or important to evidence-based decision making. Efforts like the White House Year of Evidence for Action seek to better integrate evidence into policy making. Yet––for many contexts and topics––scientific or evaluation-based evidence is just one type of evidence. The public’s wisdom, hopes, and perspectives play an important mediating factor in determining and achieving desired public outcomes. The following examples illustrate ways public value evidence can support federal decision making:
- An effort to implement climate intervention technologies (e.g., solar geoengineering) might be well-grounded in evidence from the scientific community. However, that same strategy may not consider the diverse values Americans hold about (i) how such research might be governed, (ii) who ought to develop those technologies, and (iii) whether or not they should be used at all. Public values are imperative for such complex, socio-technical decisions if we are to make good on the Year of Evidence’s dual commitment to scientific integrity (including expanded concepts of expertise and evidence) and equity (better understanding of “what works, for whom, and under what circumstances”).
- Evidence about the impacts of rising sea levels on national park infrastructure and protected features has historically been tense. To acknowledge the social-environmental complexity in play, park leadership have strived to include both expert assessments and engagement with publics on their own risk tolerance for various mitigation measures. This has helped officials prioritize limited resources as they consider tough decisions on what and how to continue to preserve various park features and artifacts.
Second, the federal government lacks effective mechanisms for collecting evidence about public values. Presently, public comment periods favor credentialed participants—advocacy groups, consultants, business groups, etc.—who possess established avenues for sharing their opinions and positions to policy makers. As a result, these credentialed participants shape policy and other experiences, voices, and inputs go unheard. While the general public can contribute to government programs through platforms like Challenge.gov, credentialed participants still tend to dominate these processes. Effective mechanisms for collecting public values into decision making or research are generally confined to university, local government, and community settings. These methods include participatory budgeting, methods from usable or co-produced science, and participatory technology assessment. Some of these methods have been developed and applied to complex science and technology policy issues in particular, including climate change and various emerging technologies. Their use in federal agencies is far more limited. Even when an agency might seek to collect public values, it may be impeded by regulatory hurdles, such as the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), which can limit the collection of public values, ideas, or other input due to potentially long timelines for approval and perceived data collection burden on the public. Cumulatively, these factors prevent agencies from accurately gauging––and being adaptive to––public responses.
Third, federal agencies face challenges integrating evidence about public values into policy making. These challenges can be rooted in the regulatory hurdles described above, difficulties integrating with existing processes, and unfamiliarity with the benefits of collecting evidence about public values. Fortunately, studies have found specific attributes present among policymakers and agencies that allowed for the implementation and use of mechanisms for capturing public values. These attributes included:
- Leadership who prioritized public involvement and helped address administrative uncertainties.
- An agency culture responsive to broader public needs, concerns, and wants.
- Agency staff familiar with mechanisms to capture public values and integrate them in the policy- and decision-making process. The latter can help address translation issues, deal with regulatory hurdles, and can better communicate the benefits of collecting public values with regard to agency needs. Unfortunately, many agencies do not have such staff, and there are no existing roadmaps or professional development programs to help build this capacity across agencies.
Aligning public values with current government policies promotes scientific integrity and equity
The White House Year of Evidence for Action presents an opportunity to address the primary challenges––namely a lack of clear direction, collection protocols, and evidence integration strategies––currently impeding public values evidence’s widespread use in the federal government. Our proposal below is well aligned with the Year of Evidence’s central commitments, including:
- A commitment to scientific integrity. Complex problems require expanded concepts of expertise and evidence to ensure that important details and public concerns are not lost or overlooked.
- A commitment to equity. We have a better understanding of “what works, for whom, and under what circumstances” when we have ways of discerning and integrating public values into evidence-based decision making. Methods for integrating public values into decision making complement other emerging best practices––such as the co-creation of evaluation studies and including Indigenous knowledges and perspectives––in the policy making process.
Furthermore, this proposal aligns with the goals of the Year of Evidence for Action to “share leading practices to generate and use research-backed knowledge to advance better, more equitable outcomes for all America…” and to “…develop new strategies and structures to promote consistent evidence-based decision-making inside the Federal Government.”
Plan of Action
To integrate public values into federal policy making, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should:
- Develop a high-level directive for agencies about the importance of collecting public values as a form of evidence to inform policy making.
- Oversee the development of a roadmap for the integration of evidence about public values across government, including pathways for training federal employees.
Recommendation 1. OMB and OSTP should issue a high-level directive providing clear direction and strong backing for agencies to collect and integrate evidence on public values into their evidence-based decision-making procedures.
Given the potential utility of integrating public value evidence into science and technology policy as well as OSTP’s involvement in efforts to promote evidence-based policy, OSTP makes a natural partner in crafting this directive alongside OMB. This directive should clearly connect public value evidence to the current policy environment. As described above, efforts like the Foundations for Evidence-Based policy making Act (Evidence Act) and the White House Year of Evidence for Action provide a strong rationale for the collection and integration of evidence about public values. Longer-standing policies––including the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act––provide further context and guidance for the importance of collecting input from broad publics.
Recommendation 2. As part of the directive, or as a follow up to it, OMB and OSTP should oversee the development of a roadmap for integrating evidence about public values across government.
The roadmap should be developed in consultation with various federal stakeholders, such as members of the Evaluation Officer Council, representatives from the Equitable Data Working Group, customer experience strategists, and relevant conceptual and methods experts from within and outside the government.
A comprehensive roadmap would include the following components:
- Appropriate contexts and uses for gathering and integrating public values as evidence. Public values should be collected when the issue is one where scientific or expert evidence is necessary, but not sufficient to address the question at hand. This may be due to (i) uncertainty, (ii) high levels of value disagreement, (iii) cases where the societal implications of a policy or program could be wide ranging, or (iv) situations where policy or program outcomes have inequitable impacts on certain communities.
- Specific approaches to collecting and integrating public values evidence, accompanied by illustrative case studies describing how the methods have been used. While various approaches for measuring and applying public values evidence exist, a few additional conditions can help enable success. These include staff knowledgeable about social science methods and the importance of public value input; clarity of regulatory requirements; and buy-in from agency leadership. These could include practices for: recruiting and convening diverse public participants; promoting exchanges among those participants; comparing public values against scientific or expert evidence; and ensuring that public values are translated into actionable policy solutions.
- Potential training program designs for federal employees. The goal of these training programs should be to develop a workforce that can integrate public value evidence into U.S. policymaking. Participants in these trainings should learn about the importance of integrating evidence about public values alongside other types of evidence, as well as strategies to collect and integrate that evidence into policy and programs. These training programs should promote active learning through applied pilot projects with the learner’s agency or unit.
- Specifying a center tasked with improving methods and tools for integrating evidence about public values into federal decision making. This center could exist as a public-private partnership, a federally-funded research and development center, or an innovation lab1 within an agency. This center could conduct ongoing research, evaluation, and pilot programs of new evidence-gathering methods and tools. This would ensure that as agencies collect and apply evidence about public values, they do so with the latest expertise and techniques.
Collecting evidence about the living and lived experiences, knowledge, and aspirations of the public can help inform policies and programs across government. While methods for collecting evidence about public values have proven effective, they have not been integrated into evidence-based policy efforts within the federal government. The integration of evidence about public values into policy making can promote the provision of broader public goods, elevate the perspectives of historically marginalized communities, and reveal policy or program directions different from those prioritized by experts. The proposed directive and roadmap––while only a first step––would help ensure the federal government considers, respects, and responds to our diverse nation’s values.
Frequently Asked Questions
Federal agencies can use public value evidence where additional information about what the public thinks, prioritizes, and cares about could improve programs and policies. For example, policy decisions characterized by high uncertainty, potential value disputes, and high stakes could benefit from a broader review of considerations by diverse members of the public to ensure that novel options and unintended consequences are considered in the decision making process. In the context of science and technology related decision making, these situations were called “post-normal science” by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz. They called for an extension of who counts as a subject matter expert in the face of such challenges, citing the potential for technical analyses to overlook important societal values and considerations.
Many issues where science and technology meet societal needs and policy considerations warrant broad public value input. These issues include emerging technologies with societal implications and existing S&T challenges that have far reaching impacts on society (e.g., climate change). Further, OSTP is already involved in Evidence for Action initiatives and can assist in bringing in external expertise on methods and approaches.
While guidance from elected officials is an important mechanism for representing public values, evidence collected about public values through other means can be tailored to specific policy making contexts and can explore issue-specific challenges and opportunities.
There are likely more current examples of identifying and integrating public value evidence than we can point out in government. The roadmap building process should involve identifying those and finding common language to describe diverse public value evidence efforts across government. For specific known examples, see footnotes 1 and 2.
Evidence about public values might include evidence collected through program and policy evaluations but includes broader types of evidence. The evaluation of policies and programs generally focuses on assessing effectiveness or efficiency. Evidence about public values would be used in broader questions about the aims or goals of a program or policy.
While various methods can be used to collect evidence about public values, it is important to consider what methods are appropriate for the issue at hand. For topics unfamiliar to many in the public, for example, an approach that helps participants learn about the issue while also providing their feedback would yield more actionable evidence about public values than approaches that rely on one-way public responses, such as surveys or polls.
- Innovation lab examples include the Lab at the Office of Personnel Management, 18F within the General Services Administration, and USAID’s Innovation, Technology, and Research Hub. [↪]