Piazza del Duomo and cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. The city's approach to building the Renaissance masterpiece offers some lessons for government.

Piazza del Duomo and cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. The city's approach to building the Renaissance masterpiece offers some lessons for government. Shutterstock.com

Creating the Foundation for Building an Agency Culture That Values Evidence

Here are six ideas to help you focus on what’s doable.

With implementation of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act underway, agencies that embrace the spirit of the law will be asking how they can build or strengthen a culture that uses data and evidence to achieve better program results. It can seem like a daunting task, especially for agencies that are just starting out.  

My advice is to embrace an unexpected source of inspiration: Florence, Italy, at the dawn of the Renaissance. In 1296, the city began an important construction project, the building of its cathedral. The problem: They didn’t know how to build a dome for the cathedral as big as the one they envisioned. It had never been done before.

Instead of waiting for a solution, the city just got started building the cathedral, minus the dome, counting on technology and know-how to catch up someday. And it did. In 1418, Filippo Brunelleschi won a contest to design the dome, which was completed in 1436. Today it stands as one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Renaissance.

The insight for federal agencies seeking to strengthen a culture of evidence: Just get started. Or if you’ve already started, keep pushing forward. 

A useful place to start is for agency leadership, the evaluation officer (for agencies that have one, by that or another name), and other evidence stakeholders to create a vision for how data and evidence will be used in the agency, even if it’s just a rough sketch. Then begin putting the pieces in place, focusing on what’s doable. 

In terms of doing the doable, here are six ideas that your agency could use as foundation stones for an evidence culture, all of which can be implemented even by a small team:

First, launch a community of practice within your agency to bridge traditional silos. Perhaps give it a catchy title, such as an “Evidence, Performance and Innovation Community of Practice.” (Yes, it’d be EPIC.) It could support learning across the agency about evidence and data practices, while building camaraderie. One option would be to begin with monthly meetings that include a focused discussion on topics such as creating a learning culture, showcasing success stories in using evidence, weaving evidence and innovation into grant making, and using rapid experimentation. 

Second, create a lead team to oversee the implementation of the Evidence Act. The team should include the evaluation officer, the chief data officer, the chief statistical officer and other relevant staff, along with the heads of every subagency. It should have a clear mandate from leadership to make the Evidence Act impactful to the agency and to adapt the law’s requirements (and Office of Management and Budget guidance) to fit the agency’s needs. The team should build existing agency capacity and processes, including the work of subagencies that may already be using evidence in important ways.  

Third, create an agency evaluation policy. This should describe the principles that the agency seeks to follow when it conducts program evaluations. You can find my suggestions for doing that here.

Fourth, build staff capacity in creative ways. If you’ve got limited evidence and evaluation staff, consider recruiting an Intergovernmental Personnel Act detailee from a university or from another agency. They can help your agency get the ball rolling before permanent staff are hired. 

Fifth, get savvy about rapid experimentation. Known in the private sector as A/B testing, it’s a great way to get program leaders more interested in building evidence. These types of experiments are operationally focused (and therefore very practical) and tend to produce results quickly and cheaply (evidence at the speed of decision making, one could say). A way to start is to ask program leadership and staff what their important operational challenges are and then brainstorm with them how testing out improvements using a randomized design could help. 

Finally, be willing to start small and build from there. An example is in the creation of an agencywide learning agenda, as the Evidence Act requires of most large departments. Agencies that identify a few key questions—priority topics for evidence building—for each of their strategic goals will be moving in the right direction. The process for identifying those questions should involve as much internal and external stakeholder input as possible, since an insular process is likely to flop. 

Will the Evidence Act, and the broader evidence movement behind it, bring about a renaissance of more effective, results-focused government? We’ll only know in hindsight. It’s useful to remember, though, that the famous figures of the Renaissance—from Brunelleschi to Da Vinci to Galileo—didn’t know they were living in the Renaissance. They simply kept innovating and learning from one another. It is our chance to do that today within government.