Amazon, Apple and Google are examples of Fortune 500 companies that are known as learning organizations. They relentlessly pursue knowledge creation and transfer, leading to improvements in products and practices. By actively managing their institutional learning, they serve their customers’ needs—and their bottom lines.
In government, on the other hand, deliberative strategic planning around learning happens far too rarely. Even though the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act requires agencies to develop strategic plans, its implementation has never met the original expectations. There are good reasons why learning approaches differ between the public and private sectors, but every organization can learn and apply that knowledge to improve results.
A few federal agencies are showing that it can be done. The Labor Department, for example, requires its operating agencies to develop learning agendas that identify high-priority research studies that those agencies would like to have done. The U.S. Agency for International Development launched a learning office with agencywide policies that encourage grantees to develop learning plans. And in just the last two years, the Small Business Administration has made notable progress, launching an evaluation office and creating an agencywide learning agenda.
Fortunately, more agencies may soon be catching up. As part of the President’s Management Agenda, the White House Office of Management and Budget is encouraging every agency to create a learning agenda “that builds and utilizes evidence and evaluation findings to inform agency strategies and decision making.” Agency updates on their learning agendas are due to OMB today.
OMB’s push on learning agendas is useful, since the agencies that do use them have found them to be very helpful. Learning agendas draw on a range of tools, including rigorous implementation studies, impact evaluation, applied research, data analytics and rapid experimentation, also known as A/B testing. They also help set priorities for studies that government needs for future decisions. And they create demand from operating agencies for the services of agency evidence experts, helping connect program managers with analytical tools and insights to help them achieve their missions. Their usefulness, in fact, is why the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which was established by Congress and issued its final report last year, unanimously recommended that every major agency have one.
OMB’s emphasis on learning agendas will also help support the goal of the President’s Management Agenda to improve the use of government data. That goal includes “providing high quality and timely information to inform evidence-based decision-making and learning” as well as “facilitating external research on the effectiveness of government programs and policies which will inform future policymaking.” Learning agendas will help agencies do both.
While OMB’s focus on learning agendas deserves praise, we all know that directives from the top do not ensure substantive change within agencies: They can easily become check-the-box exercises, where busy executives figure out the easiest way to comply and then get back to their regular work. So how can OMB use learning agendas to truly strengthen a learning culture and measurably improves results? It should take two steps:
First, in reviewing agency learning agendas—including during the strategic reviews that it will be conducting this year—OMB should encourage and support learning agendas that focus on improvement, not just on generating evidence for accountability or to justify future budget cuts. That includes research questions designed to boost program results, improve customer service and identify more cost efficient approaches. Emphasizing learning for improvement’s sake will make it more likely that agencies see learning agendas as genuinely useful, not just as a bureaucratic requirement. It will also increase the likelihood that agencies are open about their actual challenges and willing to take the next steps to tackle them.
Second, OMB should lead by example. It should develop a set of up to five learning agendas around high-priority issues that cross agency boundaries. Examples could include reducing opioid addiction and overdoses; boosting rural economic development; lowering infant-mortality rates; and helping individuals with disabilities return to work. Developing learning agendas doesn’t preclude immediate action on any issue. Instead, it ensures that decision-makers continue to learn what works so that future action is based on stronger evidence and provides more bang for the buck. It also sends the visible signal to agencies that learning agendas are valued and used by OMB itself, not something it merely tells others to use.
These two steps would help make learning agendas a useful strategy for improving outcomes and increasing taxpayers’ return on investment. In the end, the value of learning agendas is tied to a realistic and humbling fact about public policy: For many of our most important policy challenges, especially around expanding opportunity, there is still a lot we don’t know about what works best in different contexts and what strategies are the most cost-effective. That makes strengthening a learning culture in government all the more important.
Andrew Feldman is a director in the public sector practice at Grant Thornton. He was previously a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Nick Hart is the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative. Previously, he worked in the federal government for nearly a decade, most recently as the policy and research director for the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.