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  • Sun, November 05, 2017 8:37 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    Later this week the largest gathering of professional program evaluators in the world will  convene here in Washington, DC as the American Evaluation Association launches its annual conference, Evaluation 2017. While many exciting activities will occur during the week, the conference theme -- "From Learning to Action" -- provides us all the opportunity to reflect on one basic question: why do I evaluate?

    Learning Cultures

    We live in a society that often focuses, perhaps too much, on the consequences of failure. For organizations and grantees, failing to deliver on promised activities can result in a loss of funding. In government, current political discourse would have us believe programs that operate imperfectly can or should be terminated altogether.

    Instead of focusing on the consequences of failure, we could choose to focus on the benefits of failure. Consider failure from a personal rather than organizational perspective. In childhood, we learn quickly from mistakes like touching a hot pan on the stovetop or, in my case, shooting your brother with a bb gun. The benefits are that we generally avoid touching hot objects or take greater care in gun safety in the future. Over the course of our lives we make thousands of "mistakes" that productively inform our future behaviors.

    Learning from failure is a natural part of the human experience, just as much as learning from success. Because organizations are comprised of humans, we should expect that both failure and success are similarly an organic component of organizational learning.

    A learning culture must become more pervasive and routine in organizations and in our government -- it's how we improve, it's how we enhance ourselves, and it's how we make the world a better place to live.  Learning cultures are what drive continuous improvements in the outcomes that matter. Learning cultures are how we ensure those in our society who need help and support receive effective assistance. And learning cultures are how we develop the information to act, ensuring our children grow into a better world that we have prepared for them. Recognizing that failure is inevitable and can be used to productively improve is a key component of a learning culture.

    Why I Evaluate

    This perspective on the purpose of a learning culture is one that is very timely for me. My son was born just over one week ago. His entry into the world has left me reflecting in recent days on many of life's priorities and the process of learning.

    It's difficult to imagine becoming a parent that only admonishes my son's inevitable "failures" in life. It's also difficult to imagine only praising his successes. Both failure and success will present incredible learning opportunities and invaluable teaching moments.

    How we act in response to any form of information is a direct reflection on our values. In my son and in my government, I value continuous improvement to be the best person or entity possible. I value a recognition that even in mistakes or failures, we can always improve ourselves to be our best reflection of the world. I value learning because it enables action in our lives, for our families, and for our futures.

    So why do I evaluate? I evaluate to learn and improve through appropriate action. I evaluate to make the world a little better for my son. I evaluate to help make society stronger. 

    #WhyEval: A Call for Reflection

    Evaluation is not merely a profession, it derives from a greater motivation, goal, and purpose. During the American Evaluation Association's conference this week, I encourage you to consider what drives you to support evaluation:

    • What is your motivation?
    • What is your goal?
    • What is your purpose?

    As you reflect, I also encourage you to share why you evaluate (#WhyEval) with others as we all strive to better understand how learning segues to action in our own work and in our own lives.

    NICK HART, PH.D. is the President of Washington Evaluators in 2017 and Director of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

  • Sat, October 14, 2017 8:53 AM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    Originally posted on AEA 365's A Tip a Day by and for Evaluators for the Local Arrangements Working Group sponsored week in July 2017

    As the American Evaluation Association’s 2017 conference returns to Washington, DC, this fall, on behalf of the Washington Evaluators affiliate allow me to welcome you to DC for #Eval17!  I am Nick Hart, current president of Washington Evaluators, AEA’s DC-based affiliate.

    Washington Evaluators launched in 1984 and has grown to more than 300 local evaluators today. Our goal is to strengthen the evaluation community in the Washington, DC area. We pride ourselves on having a diverse representation of government, non-profit, academic, and independent evaluators that comprise our membership.

    This year our membership worked to produce a new strategic plan to ensure the services and professional development opportunities offered truly serve our community. We now have four key strategic goals: strengthen the sustainability of the evaluation community; enhance evaluation relationships and interactions; support individual evaluators' professional development needs; and ensure strong administration of the organization. Each of these four strategic goals is a core component of the Washington Evaluators mission. In implementing our ambitious strategic plan, Washington Evaluators is working to create more opportunities to engage new evaluation professionals, further the professional development of long-time evaluation professionals, and offer the 30+ years of experience of our evaluation organization to other communities of practice throughout the country.

    As the seat of the United States government, Washington, DC is perhaps best known for its influence in evaluation policy. But beyond the government, DC is home to leading evaluation organizations and the brightest evaluation minds in the U.S.  Building on this broad evaluation expertise, as we prepare for an exciting #Eval17 this fall, over the course of this week on AEA365 we will be showcasing local resources, sites to visit, volunteer opportunities, a major advocacy event on Capitol Hill, and other tips for your trip to DC.

    Rad Resource:  Follow Washington Evaluators on Twitter or check out our website to learn more about the many opportunities available in the DC area.  Many of our events are open to non-members as we support the entire DC evaluation community.

    Lesson Learned:  Book your travel for the conference early. There are three airports in close proximity to DC (Dulles, Reagan, and Baltimore).  From any of these airports, the conference site is just a short Uber ride away.  All are also reachable by DC’s public transit options.

    Hot Tip:  In addition to the resources we will share in advance of the conference, Washington, DC has an excellent tourism website that explains the sites to see in America’s Front Yard, provides tips on accessing the many free museums, and explains the neighborhoods in the city.

    Get excited for a great conference this fall. We look forward to seeing you in DC! 

    NICK HART, PH.D. is the 2017 President of Washington Evaluators and a member of the American Evaluation Association's 2017 Conference Planning Committee.

  • Fri, September 29, 2017 6:38 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    Cross posted from the American Evaluation Association monthly newsletter from September 2017.

    In September 2017, the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking proposed a bipartisan strategy – approved unanimously by the Members of the Commission – for improving the quantity and quality of evidence generated to support decision-makers in government. As the Commission published its strategy, a new initiative concurrently launched at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC, to promote implementation of the Commission’s recommendations in months and years to come. Serving as the Commission’s policy and research director and now as the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s new initiative, I’m excited about the enthusiasm in Washington for ensuring policymakers have access to relevant and useful information to guide their decisions. But we must carry this enthusiasm forward to action that can improve our field, the policies we study, and ultimately the lives of individuals in our communities.

    Aligning Values with Action

    The vast majority of my professional career in evaluation has focused on supporting the policies that enable evaluation to be generated and used in government. The Commission’s recommendations present a tremendous opportunity for the evaluation community. This is an opportunity to exhibit leadership and champion improvements in the availability of evidence, to ultimately improve how government’s policies and programs are designed and implemented.

    As the conversation continues in coming months and years about how government can better generate and use evidence, the values articulated by AEA for evaluation are constructive guideposts. As AEA members, we value “excellence in evaluation practice” and “utilization of evaluation findings.” Each of these value statements can and should be embodied and encouraged by the policies that support evaluation in government. This is precisely the nature of my work.

    An evaluation that doesn’t exist, can’t inform policymakers. I’m a proponent of recognizing and addressing the many institutional barriers to supply of evaluation. There are many barriers that exist today – laws, resources, will, leadership, organizational culture, political environment, program designs. The Commission’s report emphasizes three key barriers to generating evidence, including evaluation, in the United States: “unintentional limits on data access, inadequate privacy practices, and insufficient capacity to generate the amount of quality evidence needed to support policy decisions.” All of these barriers are solvable and can be transformed into enablers of evaluation.

    The Opportunities Ahead

    Changing expectations for senior leaders, planning for evaluation at the outset of a program or policy, and establishing appropriate incentives are all approaches to emphasize enabling evaluation in our institutions. How do we accomplish these approaches? The Commission specifically recommends that as we improve data access and privacy protections, capacity gaps can be partially addressed by establishing a Chief Evaluation Officer position within each Federal department and that learning agendas be developed to prioritize evaluation where the need is greatest. When implemented, these recommendations will help ensure that senior leaders are attuned to the needs of evaluation practice, supporting excellence, and that the capacity exists to encourage appropriate and responsible use of evaluation findings.

    These recommendations aren’t impossible. The recommendations aren’t unrealistic. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They are on the horizon and likely to become the norm in coming years. But as we all seek to strengthen the evaluation field, improving our practice, and enabling the ability to make evidence available for decision-making, it’s important to remember that many of these changes will not happen overnight.

    In my view, the Commission’s bipartisan recommendations mark a major milestone for our country for recognizing that government needs better information to guide policymaking, and that generating this evidence is really possible. I hope the evaluation community will join me in advocating for these improvements – consistent with our values – to seize the rare opportunity to vastly improve government’s capacity to support evaluation.

    NICK HART, PH.D. is the Director of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the former Policy and Research Director for the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. He is the 2017 President of Washington Evaluators and a member of the American Evaluation Association’s Evaluation Policy Task Force.

  • Thu, September 07, 2017 10:00 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    Rarely does the topic of generating evidence to support government decision-making reach an audience outside the statistical, evaluation, and policy analysis communities. But today, the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking submitted its bipartisan set of recommendations -- supported unanimously by Members of the Commission -- igniting a discussion about how to do better.

    In The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking, the Commission lays out a strategy for vastly improving the quantity and quality of evidence available in our country. The strategy seeks to overcome three prevailing challenges identified by the Commission: “unintentional limits on data access, inadequate privacy practices, and insufficient capacity to generate the amount of quality evidence needed to support policy decisions.”

    I’ve had the great privilege of working with the Commission Members over the past year as their Policy and Research Director. But my personal involvement in the project should in no way minimize this message: in coming weeks, months, and years, these recommendations will set the tone for how our country goes about developing evidence to inform decisions in government for decades to come.

    While the report of the Commission submitted to the President and Congress today addresses a range of issues and is not exclusively focused on the field of evaluation, there is no doubt that the recommendations could tremendously benefit the field if implemented. Take, for example, the Commission’s agreement with the American Evaluation Association that evaluation in government is too often “sporadic, applied inconsistently, and supported inadequately” (p. 26). One solution offered by the Commission is that departments in the Federal government should have Chief Evaluation Officers (see Recommendation 5-1). This alone is a strong statement about the value of and need for evaluation in our society.

    But there’s much more. Chapter 2 of the Commission’s report highlights challenges and potential solutions to data access that can improve the evaluation community. Chapter 3 features improvements for privacy protections that go above and beyond approaches applied in much of government today. Chapter 4 offers a new solution to a long-standing issue about securely linked data together, including for evaluation. And Chapter 5 describes the basic capacity gaps in government today, along with strategies to vastly improve government’s coordination and infrastructure.

     
    In my opinion, today marks a major milestone for our country in recognizing that government needs better information to guide policymaking
    , and that generating this evidence is really possible. I hope the evaluation community in Washington, D.C. will review, consider, discuss, and work to improve government’s capacity to better enable evaluation in support of evidence-based policymaking.

    NICK HART, PH.D. is the President of Washington Evaluators in 2017 and served as the Policy and Research Director for the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.  The views presented here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Government, including the Office of Management Budget and the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

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  • Mon, August 14, 2017 8:19 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    In 1984, Lee Cronbach urged that "the evaluator is an educator; his success is to be judged by what others learn." [1] It's no coincidence that 1984 is also the year in which Washington Evaluators formed as one of the country's earliest professional evaluation societies committed to fostering continuous learning in our field.

    Today, Washington Evaluators is committed to ensuring that our current cohort of professionals not only advocate to support the profession, but recruit future professionals into the field. Earlier this year, the Board of Washington Evaluators approved a new strategic plan that specifically identifies this as an objective for a goal to strengthen the evaluation community (see Objective 1.1).

    To accomplish this objective the Washington Evaluators Board earlier this year established two new task forces to better address the needs of new professionals. First, we created a task force to develop a suite of recommendations for future consideration around improving the services available for new professionals.

    Second, the Washington Evaluators Board established another  task force led by Tamarah Moss from Howard University to design a new scholarship program for new professionals. This group's efforts resulted in the launch in August of the 2017 New Professionals Scholarship sponsored by Washington Evaluators. The new scholarship is intended to support new professionals in integrating evaluation practices and approaches within their respective organizations by encouraging participation in the American Evaluation Association's annual conference, as well as engagement over the next year with AEA and Washington Evaluators membership.

    Through this new scholarship opportunity, Washington Evaluators hopes to strengthen the sustainability of the evaluation community, by recruiting and helping to educate the next generation of evaluators. The scholarship serves as one means to recruit new professionals into the evaluation community to facilitate continued diversity in the profession. It also ensures that those of us already engaged in the evaluation field can fulfill Cronbach's charge: to be educators and mentors to those who are new to the profession.

    Learn more about the 2017 New Professional Scholarship here.

    NICK HART, PH.D. is the President of Washington Evaluators in 2017.  The views presented here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Government, including the Office of Management Budget and the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

    ______________________________

    References

    [1] Cronbach, L., et al. 1984. Towards Reform of Program Evaluation. Washington: Jossey-Bass Publishers.   

  • Sat, July 15, 2017 10:15 AM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    The U.S. government has a long and storied experience with producing and using program evaluation. As evaluators, we often like to believe our purpose is clear and necessary. In reality, we know that is not always the case.

    The evaluation movement in the Federal government grew out of the War on Poverty initiatives in the 1960s and related efforts to develop prospective analyses for major decisions at the Department of Defense and eventually the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. We have a great many successes where evaluations, and prospective analyses, vastly improved the decisions made by Washington, DC policy-makers.

    There are also plenty of examples over the last 50 years when major policy reforms were announced without careful consideration of the evidence. But one question is important in this critique -- did sufficient, credible evidence even exist in a format useful for decision-makers?  Far too often the answer is a resounding "no."

    Over the last several years, I have frequently been asked to speak to groups about the role of evaluation in informing different aspects of government decision-making. My punchline is often the same:  Evaluation can only inform decision-making if it exists. 

    No evaluation that was promised -- but not delivered -- successfully influenced a policy decision. The challenge in government is developing the capacity to routinely produce evaluations that meet the needs of decision-makers.

    The positive influence that evaluation has had on policy in DC occurred in spite of a largely decentralized and uncoordinated evaluation function in government. Not all Federal Departments have active central evaluation offices and there is great heterogeneity in production and use across agencies.

    The lack of coordination in Federal evaluation is starting to slowly change.  Several years ago, evaluation offices worked with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to recognize government could do better in coordinating the evaluation function. Together, they formed the Interagency Council on Evaluation Policy (ICEP). Then, working through ICEP, a group of agencies funded the National Academy of Sciences to convene a workshop to discuss principles and practices for evaluation in the Federal government. [1] Taken together, both actions are positive signs for the growing interest in institutionalizing an evaluation function in the Federal government -- a task longtime Washington Evaluators member Joe Wholey called for nearly 45 years ago. [2]

    Why does coordination and the constant presence of the evaluation function matter?  Because when evaluation is institutionalized it is also demanded, it is expected, and it happens. Institutionalization creates  and maintains champions -- individuals who offer a constant voice to encourage activities and policies be evaluated, ensuring that the evidence does exist to inform decisions. Champions then produce real examples and success stories of the power evaluation can have on improving programs and services.

    Ultimately in the long-term, demand for evaluation drives its supply.  Evaluation supply relies on a range of factors, from legal authority to resources and expertise. But, perhaps above all, evaluation needs a motivated leader to set the stage. [3]

    Leaders and evaluation champions can assume many forms, within the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch. And that's why this fall Washington Evaluators is happy to co-sponsor EvalAction this fall for members of Washington Evaluators and the American Evaluation Association. EvalAction will provide evaluators the opportunity to engage with congressional offices about the important role of evaluation in informing changes to Federal policies. With any luck, EvalAction may even help identify some new champions for evaluation in Congress. 

    Hopefully in the next 50 years when asked whether the evidence even existed to inform decisions, we will be able to more frequently offer a resounding and emphatic "yes!"

    NICK HART, PH.D. is the President of Washington Evaluators in 2017 and a member of the American Evaluation Association's Evaluation Policy Task Force.  The views presented here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Government, including the Office of Management Budget and the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.


    References:

    [1] National Academy of Sciences. 2017. Workshop on “Principles & Practices for Federal Program Evaluation.” Washington, DC: Committee on National Statistics.

    [2] Wholey, J., et al. 1973. Federal Evaluation Policy. Washington DC: The Urban Institute.

    [3] Hart, N. 2016. Evaluation at EPA: Determinants of Evaluation Supply at the Environmental Protection Agency. Diss. Washington, DC: George Washington University.


  • Thu, May 18, 2017 9:24 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    Fellow Evaluators -- 

    Five months into a remarkable year for the field of program evaluation in the Washington, DC area, our organization is as active as ever.  I am continuously reminded of the incredible dedication those in the DC-area demonstrate to promoting and advocating for evaluation, and I am inspired by the commitment our members show to bettering the field and our profession.

    The spirit of strengthening evaluation is widespread, and that is precisely the motivation that led to the creation of a new Washington Evaluators 2017-2020 Strategic Plan, approved by the Board of Directors on May 17, 2017. I would especially like to thank the Board for their efforts in drafting the plan and all of the members who provided feedback on an earlier draft in recent weeks to support improving our organization.

    A hallmark of the evaluation profession is assessing actions against stated goals. With the creation of this plan, Washington Evaluators as an organization is not only demonstrating the value of this proposition, but actively pursuing a well-known organizational best practice. This strategic plan has been developed to serve as a guide for Washington Evaluators for the remainder of this year and in coming years, as the organization strives to focus on "Strengthening the Evaluation Community in the Washington, DC Area."

    Currently Washington Evaluators performs well on many levels, but there is always room for improvement and a need to know where we are starting from. As Washington Evaluators becomes more mature as an organization, this plan will be a guide for the Board of Directors and enable the development of annual action plans that contribute to achieving longer-term goals. It is my hope and intent that in coming years, future Boards will review and update the plan to ensure that the members of Washington Evaluators are receiving useful services and professional development opportunities that truly serve the Washington, DC community well for years to come. 

    And to demonstrate how progress will be made in accomplishing the goals and objectives in the 2017-2020 Strategic Plan, the Board is pleased to also announce a 2017 Action Plan as a complement, with specific short-term goals the Board will pursue this year. All of these actions are reasonably attainable – and some are even bold and ambitious – as Washington Evaluators embarks on a renewed effort for continuous organizational improvement.

    The Board and our many volunteers have much work to do in this exciting year for evaluation in DC, but we are up to the challenge. On behalf of the entire Board, we look forward to your continued participation in the Washington Evaluators community.

    Regards,

    --Nick

    Nicholas R. Hart, Ph.D.
    2017 President
    Washington Evaluators

  • Tue, May 02, 2017 7:18 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    UPDATE:  The final strategic plan was approved by the Board of Directors on May 17, 2017.  For an updated version of this post and links to the approved plan, click here

    Dear Washington Evaluators Members --

    I am excited to announce that over the last several months, the Board of Directors of Washington Evaluators has been engaged in a comprehensive strategic planning process for the organization. For professional evaluators, we know that strategic plans are incredibly valuable documents in outlining strategies for achieving organizational excellence and eventually assessing organizational performance. 

    One of my goals as President in 2017, articulated at the beginning of the year, is to reinforce the organization's infrastructure to ensure the sustainability of Washington Evaluators well into the future. Developing a robust strategic plan is one small step toward fulfilling that goal.

    As part of our development of this strategy and plan, we are specifically seeking input from all active members of Washington Evaluators. Linked below is a draft document the Board will consider during the May 2017 Board meeting. We would like your feedback on the revised organizational mission statement, strategic goals, and objectives outlined in the plan.  

    Comments will be accepted on the plan from today through midnight on May 15th.  Let us know what you think is most valuable to prioritize, or other goals and objectives you believe should be included in the plan.

    Thank you in advance for your feedback and your continued contributions to the D.C. evaluation community. 

    Regards,
    --Nick

    Nick Hart, Ph.D.
    2017 President
    Washington Evaluators

    UPDATE:  The final strategic plan was approved by the Board of Directors on May 17, 2017.  For an updated version of this post and links to the approved plan, click here


  • Sat, April 22, 2017 6:08 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    Today was a big day for evaluation, for evidence, and for science. Today, thousands of ordinary people took to the streets in Washington, DC – and in cities across the country – to proclaim support for the idea that science can and should play an important role in our society.

    As I walked through the streets of Washington this afternoon, I was impressed to see people from all walks of life, the young and old, Republicans and Democrats, and representatives of the many disciplines of the scientific community marching alongside each other, in spite of pouring rain. This great diversity of resilient marchers reflects the continued belief that science is not a partisan or ideological endeavor; instead, it is an enterprise that can be used to develop better policies.

    Earlier this week the American Evaluation Association's Board and the Evaluation Policy Task Force recognized evaluation as an important part of the scientific community by endorsing the goals and mission of today's March for Science. In doing so, AEA reminded us that

    "Evaluation is an essential function of government. It can enhance oversight and accountability of federal programs, improve the effectiveness and efficiency of services, assess which programs or policies are working and which are not, and provide critical information needed for making difficult decisions about them."

    Indeed, AEA's timeless statement captures the sentiment I encourage all members of Washington Evaluators to promote this year: evaluation matters. Evaluation doesn't just matter because it's our profession, evaluation matters because it is a tool to enhance people's lives and ultimately improve our society, and those are goals we can all agree on.

    NICK HART, PH.D. is the President of Washington Evaluators in 2017 and a member of the American Evaluation Association's Evaluation Policy Task Force.  The views presented here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Government, including the Office of Management Budget and the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.


  • Mon, March 13, 2017 10:00 PM | Nick Hart (Administrator)

    On March 10th, Washington Evaluators and The Evaluators Institute convened a panel of evaluation experts to discuss "Evaluation Policies and Approaches Across Administrations." On a  Friday evening, more than 50 evaluators joined to reflect on how evaluation policy has been shaped over the years by different Presidents and to what degree evidence was used to inform policy decisions across administrations. The panelists each offered interesting perspectives from their various experiences.  Here are several points from my own remarks that are especially relevant to our evaluation community in DC.

    Our Shared Goal

    While the transition of power in the Executive Branch of government affects how policies are implemented, and which are prioritized, it's important to remember that evaluators and policymakers share a common goal – to improve the lives of people.  Despite differences in political views and philosophies, which will undoubtedly vary, we must strive to acknowledge our shared goals, because this is precisely what evaluation seeks to achieve – better, more efficient programs and policies that improve people lives.

    We use evaluation to improve programs that help keep homeless veterans off the streets, ensure children have enough food to eat, protect our health by limiting pollution in our air and water, help the unemployed find work, and provide opportunity to those who need it most.  It is because our common goals are the same that determining how to best achieve our policy aims is a moral imperative.

    In thinking about the relationship between evaluators and policymakers, we must also acknowledge that evaluation is inherently political.  We work in a profession that is designed to pass judgment on policies and programs, to announce winners and losers. Pericles said that "just because you do not take an interest in politics, does not mean politics will not take an interest in you."  And this is exactly where evaluators often find themselves; it's where we thrive. But even then, we must recognize that evaluation needs to be conducted in an apolitical manner, maximizing the credibility of findings with an appropriate level of independence. 

    New Priorities in New Administrations, Yet Common Challenges Persist

    New administrations will always introduce new priorities, but that does not lessen the value of evaluation for its two primary purposes:  accountability and learning.  We often have questions in new administrations about what priorities will be the real focus – and  whether evaluation will be part of that discussion.  In practice, we know that in recent years, whether in times of increasing or declining budgets, agencies have articulated a priority for building new evidence.

    In 2015, Kathy Newcomer and I wrote a working paper comparing the evidence initiatives in the George W. Bush Administration and the Barack Obama Administration. What you see looking across them is that there are a striking number of similarities, most of which have nothing to do with political philosophies.  Instead, they have everything to do with the shared goal of making government better, and improving the lives of Americans.

    In the Bush Administration, efforts to implement the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) included specific questions about evaluation that we know today encouraged some agencies to pursue evaluation, bolstering evaluation capacity.  During the Bush Administration, Federal agencies started developing clearinghouses for evaluation results and increased funding for targeted evaluation activities across government.  Then, the Obama Administration pursued the "thousand flowers bloom" strategy building on the Bush efforts by requesting even more funding for evaluation, pushing out initiatives to encourage pay for success, and even creating new, formal evaluation positions in some parts of government.

    Looking across these initiatives, Kathy Newcomer and I distilled three key challenges that persist.  First, we need to identify how to better balance the purposes of evidence-building activities, recognizing there is a need for methods in evaluation to address both the learning and accountability purposes. Addressing both purposes also means we need to better synergize the existing infrastructure for evidence-building in government, starting with a recognition that the canyon between performance measurement and evaluation must be bridged.  

    Second, attention must be given to acquiring and sustaining audiences for evidence.  And this is the case regardless of which political party controls the White House.  For years we have simply assumed that the establishment of demand for evaluation, met with sufficient supply, presents one strategy for developing and maintaining a use case for performance information.  But neither administration made serious strides in helping their political appointees embrace evaluation or other evidence initiatives.

    Third, initiatives must be implemented effectively.  This point seems so obvious it's almost not worth saying – except that we must be explicit about the role effective implementation has in initiatives' success.  Even the best designed, theory-based initiative must face the realities of implementation in the complex, institutional structures of government.  In practice, the perverse incentives introduced with mandating performance and evaluation activities may lead implementers to focus merely on measurable outcomes, rather than the desirable.  This is one of the reasons why more cross-agency collaboration is needed, to break down silos of topical emphases to look at how programs interact.  For far too long, cross-agency collaboration has been an oxymoron in government and it's time to address this limitation.

    Moving Forward:  What You Can Do

    Given the many challenges facing the evaluation community regardless of who is in the seat of power, what can be done to move forward?  Here are several brief suggestions:

    1. Stay Calm. Transitions are a routine part of democratic society.  It takes time for agency leaders to settle in and to learn about the priorities before them.  Evaluation may not be the first thing that a new appointee turns to, but inevitably it will be part of the discussion – everyone wants to know what they achieved at the end of an appointment.  This is one strategy for beginning to build a better audience for evaluation.

    2. Articulate the value of evaluation as a community.  We can do this by bolstering our professional networks of evaluators, both inside and outside of government to facilitate appropriate connections and ensure the multiple purposes of evaluation are represented.  In the DC area we have Washington Evaluators to facilitate this networking, and there are several other communities of practice available to individuals within the government. With a broader community we can help present evaluation as a tool for more than informing budget decisions – though we hope that it is among those tools – but one that helps promote learning and continuous improvement in policies and programs.

    3. Inform decision-makers about the usefulness of evaluation.  In order for evaluation to be useful, decision-makers will need to understand how existing evaluations can be used to help shape and frame new policies, or even review old ones. These available evaluations  allow us to find opportunities to continue to educate the public and their leaders about the role many important government programs play in achieving our shared goal for the country, especially in helping to implement initiatives effectively.  Evaluators can help facilitate informed use of evaluation, noting the relevance of existing evaluations and identifying important caveats as new policy decisions are formulated. 

    4. Help agencies find opportunities to bolster their analyses.  Similar to the suggestion above about highlighting the usefulness of evaluation, we can actually strive to make evaluation more useful too!  One strategy might be to incorporate in our evaluations analysis of disparities in policies that exist across subgroups of our population.  I recently wrote at greater length about the latest Dialogue on Race and Class, a January event co-sponsored by Washington Evaluators, the American Evaluation Association, and George Washington University.  Our community must give greater attention to the evaluation of subgroups because the challenges facing our society are complex and disparities can be inadvertently embedded in policies.  We owe it to our fellow citizens to help identify and address such injustices. 

    At the end of the day, we do not live in a perfect system of government.  In fact, change in the policies of our representative democracy was designed to be difficult.  But it's what we've got. So let's make the best of it by continuing to learn and improve together, to accomplish our shared goal.

    NICK HART, PH.D. is the President of Washington Evaluators in 2017.  The views presented here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Government, including the Office of Management Budget and the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

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