With fast-moving evidence-based policy bill, agencies may add new C-suite member

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Congress may move soon on legislation that would help agencies use existing metrics to make better data-driven decisions about their organization’s programs.

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act is moving quickly in the House, said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), one of the legislation’s co-sponsors. With House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as the bill’s key sponsor, agencies may have new mechanisms in place to improve data management as early as next year.

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“With Speaker Ryan’s support, I think this will see the House floor and it may actually, if we move fast enough … could also be attached to the [National Defense Authorization Act] NDAA,” he said Thursday during Government Executive’s Customer Service Summit in Washington.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee easily reported the bill favorably on Thursday. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a companion bill.

The bill puts into place many of the 22 recommendations from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which presented its findings to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in September.

The legislation also absorbs the OPEN Government Data Act, which officially designates government data as “open by default.” The Senate’s version of the 2018 NDAA already includes the OPEN Data Act, Farenthold said.

Notably, the legislation would also authorize agencies to create a new position: a chief evaluation officer.

“It creates within all agencies somebody who’s in charge of gathering the information that the agency has and making it available and working with other agencies so we can use the evidence-based information that we have to set policy and to make laws,” Farenthold said.

Agency heads would appoint chief evaluation officers, who can’t serve simultaneously as a department’s chief financial officer, chief information officer, chief acquisition officer, chief human capital officer or the inspector general.

“The chief evaluation officer of each agency shall continually assess the coverage, quality, methods, consistency, effectiveness, independence and balance of the portfolio of evaluations, policy research and ongoing evaluation activities of the agency,” the legislation said.

In addition, the bill directs agencies to appoint a chief data officer if they haven’t already.

Each agency would submit an annual evidence-building plan to the Office of Management, which would oversee the governmentwide implementation of the bill and would develop a federal inventory of all data assets.

2-year probationary periods

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee also cleared legislation that would extend probationary periods for most federal employees and senior executives from one year to two, but not without some debate.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said his experience as the former Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, where he supervised about 300 public sector employees, played into his decision to introduce the Ensuring a Qualified Civil Service (EQUALS) Act.

“There are complex jobs throughout federal government,” Comer said. “Many of those jobs require extensive training and a specific skill set. The standard for hiring to fill those positions is extremely high, as it should be, but that makes the task of filling those positions very important. If the wrong person is hired into one of these jobs, the consequences can last for a generation. Agencies need time to ensure the individuals they hire will be able to successfully carry out their duties.”

Democrats on the committee largely said they opposed the bill, and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) suggested the committee ask the Government Accountability Office to review the Defense Department’s use of a two-year probationary period.

“Let’s find out if it works,” he said. “We just passed a bill on evidence-based policymaking. I’d like to see the evidence of whether two years is materially different. Does it have good impacts? Does it have bad impacts? What are they? Let’s have some hearings.”

Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said he feared a longer probationary period would limit employees’ rights to appeal a disciplinary action or retaliation. He also questioned whether a two-year probationary period would hurt agencies’ abilities to recruit new talent.

“This may be a good idea. We don’t really know,” Connolly said. “There are lots of questions about the efficacy of this proposal. I, for one, am concerned about the potential impact on recruiting the workforce of the future. … To governmentwide extend the probationary period [for] two years, creates a climate of more uncertainty, less protection and I think diminishes the attractiveness of federal service for a lot of people.”

Like the Social Security Administration, the IRS also has lengthy training requirements for its revenue specialists and other employees who perform field work and other audits.

Revenue specialists rotate through “a constant cycle” of classroom and field training, said Tom Burger, executive director of the Professional Managers Association. That rotation of training continues, as federal employees learn other pieces of the tax system.

“You want to have the best trained people doing what Congress has enacted,” he said.

Longer probationary periods would give supervisors a better picture of whether IRS field specialists can work on their own, Burger added.

The oversight committee ultimately struck down Connolly’s suggestion for a GAO study and passed the EQUALS Act. The bill would go to the full House for a vote.

Sen. James Lankford is also considering the possibility of a 2-year probationary bill, Burger said.