Doug Criscitello, Executive Director of MIT’s Center for Finance and Policy
From Government Executive
Although the U.S. government presides over what collectively must be one of the world’s largest data repositories, its capacity to use that data to build citizen trust and make informed, evidence-based decisions is severely constrained. As explained in an enlightening report recently issued by the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP), the mere existence of data is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating empirical evidence to inform decisions throughout the full lifecycle of public programs—enactment, funding, operation, reform, termination.
The digitization of many facets of various activities the government funds through its $4 trillion annual budget has resulted in a data explosion at federal agencies. But that data needs to be synthesized into actionable information to satisfy taxpayers’ demands for better results and greater transparency. The CEP report makes clear that much remains to be done to achieve that goal and provides a comprehensive plan to improve access to federal data, strengthen privacy protections and expand the public, private and academic research communities’ capacity to analyze data.
CEP provides an insightful list of recommendations such as establishing a National Secure Data Service to enable and leverage capabilities across government, addressing statutory impediments that obstruct smart data use, and streamlining processes used to grant researchers access to data. The report appropriately emphasizes strong privacy protections and advocates for comprehensive risk assessments for publicly released data and for the use of better technology and greater coordination across government. To prioritize efficient evidence building, CEP points out the need to coordinate statistical activities, evaluation and policy research within and between departments and across levels of government.
Years after a devastating crisis that spread from the U.S. across Europe and Asia, policymakers all over the world are still trying to come up with strategies to make sure that a financial crisis of that magnitude never happens again. One essential element of this task is building back the trust of the public.
When the every day participants in the financial system—the depositors, holders of short-term commercial paper of banks, and other bank investors—feel confident in the banks, the financial system stabilizes. Business runs more smoothly. And growth improves.
In the U.S. our faith in banks is abysmally low. According to a Gallop poll conducted in June, Americans’ confidence in U.S. banks stands at 26%, up from the record low of 21% a year ago. The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in U.S. banks remains well below its pre-recession level of 41%, measured in June 2007. Meanwhile, across the pond, only 19% of Britons say that banks are well managed, according to the British Social Attitudes Report released in September.
Perhaps the simplest way to instill confidence in the public is transparency. That is: to compel banks to provide full and complete balance sheet information. They must disclose more detailed information to the public on their holdings of securities, government bonds, commercial real estate, and commercial paper; they must reveal their amounts of equity and capital; and they should be more forthcoming about outstanding loans and other liabilities. There should be no such thing as “off balance sheet” assets.
Transparency and full disclosure are popular notions, especially when applied to consumer product safety. If people have full access to knowledge about product content, then they can decide for themselves whether the product is safe, according to the prevailing view.
But when mandated by public policy, transparency and disclosure can have harmful unintended consequences, I have found in my research. For some consumers, the very fact that government requires disclosure about a product raises a red flag. Individuals will conclude that the government knows something they don’t about the product. Many people will believe the product content that requires disclosure is unsafe and then not consume the product—even if it does not contain any harmful ingredients.
Imagine confusing the following two statements from a cancer doctor: 1) “You may die from cancer” and 2) “I want you to die from cancer.” It is not hard to see a rudimentary difference between these two statements. The first statement is a prediction — it is saying that something may happen given certain conditions (in this case death conditional upon having cancer). The second statement is a preference, a desire, or a wish for a world to one’s particular liking.