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.