US Congress just before leaving for Christmas has voted to approve a new law, that mandates two key elements: public information is open by default and needs to be made actively available in machine readable format, as well as that policy making should be evidence based. In order for agencies to comply they will need to appoint a Chief Data Officer.

I think while of those two the first one (open data) is the more immediately visible, the second one, about evidence based policy making, is much more significant long term. Government, especially politics, often is willingly disinterested in policy impact evaluation. It’s much more status enhancing to announce new plans than admitting previous plans didn’t come to anything. Evidence based policy will help save money. Additionally government agencies will soon realise that doing evidence based policy making is made a lot easier if you already do open data well. The evidence you need is in that open data, and it being open allows all of us to go look for that evidence or its absence.

There’s one caveat to evidence based policy making: it runs the risk of killing any will to experiment. After all, by definition there’s no evidence for something new. So a way is needed in which new policies can be tried out as probes. To see if there’s emerging evidence of impact. Again, that evidence should become visible in existing open data streams. If evidence is found the experimental policy can be rolled out more widely. Evidence based policies need experiments to help create an evidence base, not just of what works but also of what doesn’t.

A great result for the USA’s open government activists. This basically codifies the initiatives of the Obama Presidency, which were the trigger for much of the global open data effort these last 10 years, into US federal law.