Proposed: An Office of Evaluation Within the GAO… And Evidence-based Policy

Fifty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in the Public Interest of a “crisis of confidence.” In short, the federal government had for decades spent funds to improve America’s cities. Yet, what Americans saw on the evening news were reports of crime, riots, and general decay. Was anything the government was doing actually helping? And why did elected officials and executive branch officials speak glowingly of these urban programs?

To redress the cynicism about government policy and to ensure the public’s funds were being spent wisely, Moynihan proposed giving the legislative branch more experts who would objectively assess the effectiveness of programs:

“I would like to suggest that Congress should now establish an Office of Legislative Evaluation in the GAO which would have the task of systematically reviewing the program evaluations and “PPBS” judgments made by executive departments. This office would be staffed by professional social scientists…. It should not be expected that their findings will be dramatic or that they will put an end to argument – just the contrary is likely to occur. But the long-run effect could be immensely useful, if only because Congress would have some clearer idea than it now has as to what it is doing…”

The past often proves a prologue.

Evidence-based policy-making has been moving forward in fits and starts on Capitol Hill. Prof. Andrew Reamer of George Washington University has been much involved in this effort, and his recent testimony before the Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking is worth reading. (The Commission may be followed on Twitter at

(Hat tip to Brookings’ Philip Wallach for slipping this Moynihan essay to