July 16, 2020Op-ed

The Hill: Americans want evidence and data to drive COVID decisions — they don’t believe it’s happening

by Ben Harris and Kate Tromble

Federal/Local/State/ 2020/

Americans, it turns out, really like data — and want our politicians to use it, too.

The COVID-19 crisis appears to have prompted a spike in American’s interest in data. We track daily counts of new coronavirus cases and compare positive results to the number of tests administered. We monitor the share of beds filled in local hospitals. Each Thursday, we wait for the U.S. Department of Labor to report how many people applied for unemployment insurance — and we follow updates on how many loans have been distributed through the Paycheck Protection Program. All told, we are using and monitoring data in an unprecedented fashion.

Americans are demanding that policymakers do the same. While there is a clear division in how people are interpreting evidence from epidemiological studies, constituents are nearly united in their belief that politicians should be consulting experts and embracing evidence-based policy. A recent study by NORC at the University of Chicago – commissioned by Results for America, a nonpartisan group with which we are both affiliated – found that 92 percent of Americans think that policymakers should seek the best evidence and data available when making decisions.

Importantly, these results were consistent across party lines: A full 94 percent of Democrats and 92 percent of Republicans supported the notion that politicians should make decisions with the best data and evidence.

Despite Americans’ desire for evidence-based policy, many don’t think they’re getting it — especially at the federal level. When asked if they thought that President Trump was sufficiently listening to experts to deal with the coronavirus, 59 percent of respondents –including 28 percent of Republicans – answered that he isn’t.

Indeed, state and local policymakers are faring better in the eyes of their constituents. Only 30 percent said their governor isn’t listening to experts enough, and just 31 percent think the same for their mayor or local official.

These generally more positive reviews may be at least partly due to the data-driven efforts of some state and local policymakers. For example, Baltimore set up an innovative tracking tool to monitor how many meals had been delivered to city residents at each location. Seattle used evaluation and behavioral science to help more residents apply for discounts on their utility bills. Cincinnati created a dashboard to alert residents to impacted city services. Virginia connected data sets to help jobless workers access job training and placement services. Rhode Island developed a cloud-based system to manage a surge of unemployment insurance claims — and was subsequently one of the first states to offer its workers Pandemic Unemployment Insurance.

As Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said recently of her state’s evidence-based testing and contact tracing efforts, which have sharply reduced the spread of the coronavirus among state residents, “If you actually dig into the facts and the data and the science, you realize there’s only one solution, there’s only one way to do this right.”