Is Your Agency Ready for New Evidence-Based Policy Tools?

The goal is to strengthen a culture of learning and improvement.

The Commission on Evidence Based Policymaking, launched last year by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., recently released its recommendations. They include a call for federal departments to 1) establish chief evaluation officers to help coordinate and prioritize program evaluation activities; and 2) develop learning agendas that identify high-priority research studies that agencies would like to have done.

Both recommendations are designed to ensure departments’ evidence-building resources (whether program evaluations, basic analysis or research, or performance analyses) are used as productively as possible. The broader goal is to strengthen a culture of learning and improvement.

Will the commission’s recommendations be put into practice, either through statute or administrative action? Given the bipartisan nature of the recommendations and the high-profile backing of Ryan and Murray, it seems likely they will.   

That, then, raises another question: How can federal agencies prepare to increase their use of evidence, moving in the direction of chief evaluation officers and learning agendas? We have four suggestions for senior leaders.

1. See the commission’s recommendations as an opportunity to strengthen your organization’s focus on results

We know new congressional or White House mandates often seem onerous. However, the federal departments and agencies that have embraced chief evaluation officers and learning agendas have found them useful. For example, when the Labor Department added a chief evaluation officer and required learning agendas of each of its operating agencies, those steps helped strengthen a culture of evidence and learning. In fact, Labor was the only cabinet-level agency that saw a statistically significant increase in GAO’s index of data-driven decision-making from 2007 to 2013, the most recent data available.   

2. Get to know the leading examples of chief evaluation offices within government

Learning about agencies with well-respected, robust chief evaluation offices can help your organization design its own approach. For example, Labor’s Chief Evaluation Office is a departmentwide resource focused on serving—and encouraging greater evidence use among—Labor’s bureaus. In contrast, the Education Department’s version of a chief evaluation office is an independent arm called the Institute of Education Sciences. IES advises department leadership and program staff about evidence-based policy topics, but also serves as a resource for practitioners, including state and local education officials. A third example is the Administration for Children and Families at the Health and Human Services Department. It’s Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation shows the value of having a chief evaluation office for a key agency such as ACF, rather than relying on a departmentwide office. There are various models to choose.

3. Consider the level of resources available to fund a chief evaluation office and adapt accordingly

The examples above—Labor, Education and ACF—are lucky: They are all adequately funded offices and have staff with deep expertise. At Labor, the secretary can set aside up to 0.75 percent of appropriated funds from across the department for evaluation. Once set aside, these funds get transferred to the chief evaluation officer’s budget. Other departments and agencies that may soon be adding chief evaluation offices (and implementing learning agendas) may not be so lucky. In particular, they may have little or no funding for those activities and few staff with strong backgrounds in research and evidence. How should they proceed?

Our advice is to start simple, by taking low-cost steps that begin to raise awareness with staff and outside stakeholders about the importance of using and building evidence, such as:

  • Add an evidence page to your website that lists findings from recent, rigorous studies and highlights what works.
  • Start a newsletter that highlights ways in which the organization is working to use and build credible evidence.
  • Launch an Evaluation Strategy Day to bring together staff and stakeholders to identify key research questions for your policy area.
  • Signal to the field that evaluation is a growing priority by notifying grant applicants that a condition of funding is participation in evaluations, if selected to participate.
  • Develop and publish an evaluation policy that demonstrates the organization’s commitment to building evidence and using it to inform policy and practice.

4. Ensure leadership commitment from the top

While there is no cookie-cutter approach to these strategies, there is one essential factor: leadership commitment. That includes leadership support for the role of the chief evaluation officer as an honest broker about evidence issues; making it a clear requirement that the organization create learning agendas; and inclusion of the chief evaluation officer in important policy and management discussions, such as agency performance reviews, so he or she is knowledgeable about leadership priorities.

Whether the commission’s recommendations become requirements or not, federal leaders have the opportunity to learn from leading agencies and strengthen their organizations’ capacity to use and build evidence about what works. It is about doing the doable with the resources you have, but being clear in your commitment to having evidence inform decision-making. As long as you are helping your agency build capacity to do that, you are moving in the right direction.   

Andrew Feldman is the host of the Gov Innovator podcast. He served on the Evidence Team of the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration.

Robert Shea leads Grant Thornton’s Public Sector Strategy Practice and served on the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. He served as the associate director for administration and government performance at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration.