Who In Government Is Asking ‘What Works?’

There is no single individual at agencies who is tasked with speaking up when what we’re doing isn’t working.

One year ago this week, the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking issued its final report, The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking, which made a number of substantive recommendations about how to strengthen the governance, collection and use of evidence in the way the government develops, implements and evaluates its programs. A year later, where do things stand?

While there is still precious little use of rigorous evidence in decision-making across government, the good news is that substantive progress has been made on some of the commission’s recommendations. For example, the Trump administration is driving the development of “learning agendas” through the President’s Management Agenda. Learning agendas offer agencies an approach to answering the big questions they have about what’s working and what’s not. The government also has set a cross-agency performance goal to better “leverage data as a strategic asset to grow the economy and increase the effectiveness of the federal government.”

These are good first steps, but there’s still a lot more we can do, starting with the appointment of chief evaluation officers in federal agencies. The commission recommended the federal government “identify or establish a chief evaluation officer in each department to coordinate evaluation and policy research and to collaborate with other evidence-building functions within federal departments.”

This recommendation is included in legislation working its way through Congress. The 2018 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act passed the House easily, but then unfortunately stalled in the Senate. There are a number of reasons the bill has been held up, but one of them is resistance to appointment of yet more chiefs to drive improvements in an area thought not to have enough focus. If there are too many chiefs, the thinking goes, then nothing’s a priority. Wrong. We do need them, and here’s why.

Today, many agencies are conducting evaluations of varying rigor on an ad hoc basis. Without a focal point for evidence-building, there’s little way of ensuring that evaluations are well-designed to answer the key questions most important to programs or policymakers. A chief evaluation officer should have responsibility for collaborating with mission-focused partners across the agency to identify the major questions that need answering, as well as driving a learning agenda and evaluations that answer those questions.

Today, there is no single individual at government agencies who is tasked with speaking up when what we’re doing isn’t working. Sure, the performance improvement officer is supposed to drive performance improvement, but the diversity of performance management, reporting and other compliance that fall to that position makes it difficult to ensure independent, rigorous evaluation is a priority. A chief evaluation officer should be charged with knowing how and when to evaluate an agency’s programs.

The concern that we’ve already got too many chiefs is not entirely without merit. The chief financial officer was created to bring focus to and improve financial management government-wide. God knows we need that. But other positions, like chief information officers and chief human capital officers, soon followed as a way to heighten attention to governmentwide challenges. But even if all those positions were wildly successful, if the programs their agencies were administering weren’t designed for success, it would all be for naught.

The commission didn’t make this recommendation lightly or in a vacuum. We considered the proliferation of chiefs across government. But we had great examples where the appointment of a chief evaluation officer made a difference. The Labor Department appointed one who collaborated with program partners to develop a learning agenda that eventually offered genuine insights into what programs were having the greatest impact and which ones weren’t having any impact at all. It’s the model for the commission recommendations and it can work. Without these insights, agencies are blindly aiming at goals they have no chance of achieving.

The appointment of chief evaluation officers is no guarantee that we’ll open the floodgates on the availability and use of evidence in decision-making. It will take leadership commitment at the highest levels across government to do that. But strengthening the governance over evidence gathering and us gives it at least a fighting chance. Without it, whose job is it to ask, “is what we’re doing working?”

Mr. Shea, a former senior official at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, leads the Strategy Service Line at Grant Thornton Public Sector. He is a member of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.