Using Data to Enact Change: The Path Forward in an Era of Polarization
“Most Americans find lice and colonoscopies more appealing than Capitol Hill.”
During a time of heightened political tension and exacerbated ideological divides, policymaking based on the facts and evidence-based research is now more important than ever. Single decisions have significant impacts on millions of American families nationwide on a day-to-day basis. However, a confluence of partisan behavior, internal pressure, and personal perspectives can lead to the detachment of data-informed policy away from legislation in Washington D.C. Consequently, it is paramount for research to be conducted not only analyzing the transition toward the use of 21st-century data, or lack thereof, but also reviewing voter opinions in local communities. With the midterm elections occurring tomorrow across the nation, the trajectory of America’s future for many years to come will be decided. Consequently, further inquiry on this subject is highly pertinent. Through a statistical lens, an examination of historical trends leads to a discussion of civic engagement today in the status quo. Furthermore, America’s global stance on the international stage plays a substantial role in providing vital context on where the country must move.
Since the beginning of humankind, it has been within civilization’s nature to make decisions and operate in their day-to-day lives as groups. Consequently, a democratic entity was established centuries ago now known as “the United States of America” to govern its constituents, the public, and the general population. While belief systems have changed and the political landscape has shifted, the decision-making process for elected officials should, in theory, prioritize the best interests of the public. However, the reality has unfortunately taken shape in the form of outside, external forces influencing the primary decisions that legislators make. As a result, citizens have become increasingly discouraged by the slow, tedious process on Capitol Hill with meaningful progress stagnated, civic engagement reduced, and approval ratings at all-time lows. Therefore, it is critically important for elected leaders to act in the best interest of their constituents with data-driven, evidence-based research in hand. To examine this normative ideal, this written piece will explore the depths and intricacies of the public policy process, answering the much-needed question: “How can human error in the review of policies and legislation dilute the efficacy of recommendations made by data-driven research in issues pertinent to public policy?”
The future is bright for politics and full of promise with Americans voting in record numbers during the 2020 presidential election given a total of nearly 158.4 million ballots – a historically high level of voter turnout. However, to put this into perspective, only 66.8% of citizens 18 years or older voted, meaning 33.2% of Americans did not vote and were left out of the democratic process. These insightful statistics surrounding elections emphasize the need to examine this issue further by understanding the underlying issue at hand in D.C. politics, the importance of an effective solution, historical progress, and approaches with true potential. Due to a variety of factors such as political divisions, polarization, and internal pressure, data-driven research is often disregarded in the realm of public policy regarding topics pertinent to legislative issues. The lack of serious consideration in these crucial areas raises the question of what needs to be done. Legislators sworn to their oath of office have not only an obligation to their predecessors but also a responsibility to their constituents to utilize all data available to make informed decisions. And as citizens residing in America under the Constitution, it is the duty of Americans to hold their representatives accountable to ensure that accurate decision-making occurs.
The American public has continued to grow increasingly disconnected from politics as views become more polarized than ever before. Over the past several election cycles, many citizens have started to feel that their “representatives” in government aren’t truly representing their best interests. The past few years have made it clear that the perception that elected officials are more concerned with their reelection than the well-being of their constituents rings true. One of the primary driving forces for these issues has been the severe lack of data-driven research in public policy, resulting in a tremendous amount of untapped potential to increase political efficiency. Instead, bureaucratic and administrative backlogs have slowed down the entire process. Getting a bill from point A to B has become incredibly difficult if not nearly impossible without substantial levels of tradeoffs, sacrifices, and compromises that may be detrimental to the main legislative purpose. Consequently, it’s not a surprise that voter turnout rates have decreased in recent times with the only exception being the 2020 Presidential Election, which experienced massive public support from celebrities, news outlets, etc. to promote the full use of people’s right to vote. Overall, however, civic activism on the grassroots level is becoming less apparent, while citizen engagement and active participation have been diminished.
With record-low approval rates for the Oval Office and festering divisions, the reality is that politicians often hold the wrong priorities that differ from their constitutional duty. In fact, President Joe Biden currently holds an approval rating of 41.3% as of May 2022. Given the nation’s soaring inflation, high gas prices, and economic concerns, the rationale behind the level of distrust between Washington D.C. and the U.S. populace seems clear. Daniel Webster, a U.S. founding father, eloquently states, “Power tends to protect itself merely to maintain its own status and control. Principle gives up power for the sake of creating the best public policy.” Frequent misinformation regarding public policy has run rampant while polarization is rapidly dominating Capitol Hill with unhealthy consequences. The prominence of influencing factors stemming from interest groups, donors, etc. is concerning. Unfortunately, the lack of attention directed towards fact-focused evidence in political decision-making minimizes the importance of the public’s interests and general welfare.
It is absolutely imperative that these systemic problems are examined and addressed with tens of millions often being directly impacted by a single pen stroke. In fact, individual departments that operate as separate entities are limited by the constraints established in their budgets and discretionary autonomy determined by Congress. For instance, despite the ability to control interest rates and the supply of money in the economy, the Department of the Treasury has limited flexibility in its decisions given the circumstances that they’re handed by Congress with limited legal freedom in other areas (i.e. fiscal policy). With the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Commerce all being involved in important roles, there are considerable impacts on healthcare, government assistance, education, and other paramount areas. Elected legislators have a responsibility to use performance-informed data in policy decisions. Given that a multitude of sectors relies on vital decisions made in Washington DC, courses of policy action should be evidence-based. Given the long and tedious process for a bill to be signed into law as actual legislation, crucial hearings held to gain insight on pertinent issues must no longer be as politicized as they are. Despite the presence of experts available to testify, the problematic nature of the current system places immense pressure on political lines. Dialogue is targeted toward bolstering reputations instead of promoting meaningful discussion and eliciting the truth and facts on the matter. Indeed, even for those claiming that they rely on evidence-based research, the fact of the matter is quite the opposite with simple decisions oftentimes being entirely off base from the facts. Critically, citizens hold steady expectations for their representatives to base decisions on data. Moving forward, government officials must look past party lines to create bipartisan solutions, prioritize the interests of their constituents, and ensure that scientifically-based evidence is at the forefront of fact-focused decision-making.
In the early stages of the development of America’s political system, government entities, whether they be agencies, legislatures, or other organizations, encountered difficulties in applying data to their regular operations. Prior to today’s era of technology and innovative advances such as the internet and expansive computer power, norms were initially set with a minimized focus on the numbers and greater prioritization of more tangible factors. Politicians would frequently base decisions on their personal perspectives on the issue crafted through past experiences, observations, beliefs, and anecdotes. Unfortunately, their individual perspectives are often vastly different from the life of an everyday American citizen. Moreover, politicians are pulled to align with their affiliated political party’s stance on the issue, interest groups, and other allies. These circumstances are fueled by an ineffective system powered by pen & paper, making communication and data entry slow. As a result, the United States has fallen behind many developed countries such as South Korea, France, Ireland, etc. in terms of public data accessibility and transparency at 14th globally. These concerning facts paint an unfortunate picture for America but also emphasize room for growth and improvement.
One may think that the advent of computer-centric developments would lead to greater efficiency. However, the use of data-based research generally experienced stagnation despite significant, impactful technological advances. However, the rise of innovations such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to formulate predictive analyses and generate optimal outcomes provided an alternative route. Alongside other developments like the internet to expand the accessibility of information and databases to store massive amounts of data and serve as organizational structures, these advancements allowed users to determine the best course of action based on a set of circumstances and improve interagency communication. Although these algorithms require large amounts of data as inputs often in the billions of units to yield better results, open-government models have increased the transparency of data between different entities.
These positive movements reflect the progression of meaningful change in the right direction with most of the headway initially occurring in the private sector. With distinct incentives to constantly provide the highest quality of their goods and services for their customers, machine learning and data analytics have been used to determine the optimal price of goods and services, evaluate the success of advertising strategies, and more. These successes highlighted the possibilities that emerged and the effectiveness of data-driven research.
The renowned movie “Moneyball” serves as a prime example of real-world applications of data in the private sector, the sports and athletics industry in this scenario. Featuring big names such as Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, the movie depicts the story of the Oakland A’s and their unexpectedly historic season when all predictions pointed towards a disappointing one. Despite weak financial backing, a severe lack of resources, and an aging roster, the incorporation of efficient data use and mathematical methods allowed them to construct a successful team from subpar assets through an unorthodox approach looked down upon at the time. Contrary to conventional ideas, trading and removing traditionally talented players meant the team experienced a record-breaking season in the MLB with the most consecutive, single-season wins.
Change within government, however, was only initially prominent mostly on the state and local levels. With state programs requiring fewer steps for approval and smaller teams to manage, the smaller scale of their operations meant that improvements were easier to implement. Provided regional viewpoints and a smaller, more agreeable population, there were fewer concerns about political backlogs with more potential to agree on bipartisan issues. In fact, many municipalities have adopted policy evaluation mechanisms and protocols to require a data-informed element, promoting public reporting of progress. In New York City, for example, the Criminal Justice Reform Act that closed disparities allowed for the evaluation of policies, and encouraged policy discussions led to the decrease of crime by 50,854 instances. Consequently, prioritizing live statistics that are regularly updated is critically important.
On the federal level, the movement has been relatively steady for the most part. The importance of making data easily understandable and accessible is evidently clear which is why the use of data visualizations to ease interpretation and increase accountability is becoming more prevalent. With the government beginning to grow more seamless with the integration of evidence-based data due to legislative mandates, data indicators are progressing towards an ideal position alongside the growing need for efficient solutions during the pandemic.
Overall, it’s clear that recent developments will be important to provide effective solutions and close the gap between advanced, data-based findings and the general understanding of its main ideas. This is precisely why open-source programming, cloud computing, data visualization, and storage infrastructure are advancing quickly. The use of images, charts, and graphs via data visualization makes processes considerably more efficient with tools & platforms like Tableau, R Studio, and JASP becoming easier to use. Furthermore, plain-language explanations to accompany complex research are being adopted by international labs to evaluate progress and break down complicated concepts & topics into understandable takeaways. To advance the communication and public understanding of data-driven research, there is a growing need for individuals to work at the intersection of public policy and computer science with wide-ranging applications to address airplane delays, food recommendations, etc.
Despite the bleak outlook initially presented by the absence of performance-informed data, innovative developments at the intersection of applied mathematics and the social sciences indicate significant promise. To aid in the process, awareness about the severe lack of evidence-based research currently in politics has been raised and solutions to address the underlying issue in public policy have been provided. Even today, decision-making processes by America’s elected leaders are unaccountable, as their constituents are often left in the dark, and lack research revealing the extent of the problem. As a result, both the exploration of the truth behind this topic and a dive into the specifics of what people can expect to see in the future within the context of the American political landscape are important in an informative and educational manner. Moving forward, with this heightened understanding of the policy process, American citizens can take action to hold their elected representatives accountable and advocate for the presence of data-driven, evidence-based research in D.C.