Building a stronger evidence base
By Performance.gov Team
CAP goal PMA
If you find yourself asking what is OMB Circular A-11, you’re probably not alone and certainly in good company – this is definitely one of Performance.gov’s ‘wonkier’ news posts. Read this post for more information and background about A-11!
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently issued its annual update to OMB Circular A-11. In it, OMB provides further guidance to Federal agencies about the vision for how the requirements of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (“Evidence Act”) will align with and complement components of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act. As agencies prepare to submit their first deliverables required by the Evidence Act and its implementation guidance (OMB M-19-23) this fall (Interim Learning Agenda; Interim Capacity Assessment for Statistics, Research, Evaluation, and Other Analysis; and the FY 2022 Annual Evaluation Plan), A-11 provides a framework for thinking through how these deliverables relate to one another.1 Importantly, it also clarifies how these deliverables relate to and mutually reinforce agency strategic planning and other performance reporting. This framework will help agencies strengthen the integration of strategic planning, strategic reviews, and learning agendas – key organizational learning and planning activities – to advance evidence-building efforts, which are designed to improve performance and enable progress in meetings agencies’ strategic objectives and outcomes. As the updates to A-11 indicate, OMB is calling on agencies to seize this opportunity to align critical management and learning components of the GPRA Modernization Act and the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act to support agency leaders to more effectively deliver on mission.
Leveraging Evidence-Building Efforts to Strengthen Agency Functions and Performance
As Federal agencies undertake efforts to build and use evidence, agencies should use these activities to strengthen agency functions and coordination in several key ways. In the context of this post, “functions” refers to processes and organizational capabilities that support agency decision-making.
Ensure that Evidence Building and Use is Included in Agency Functions
Underlying agencies’ efforts to build and use evidence is the notion that evidence generation should not happen in isolation, separate from other agency functions.2 Rather, evidence generation and use must be integrated in existing agency processes and operations, including performance management activities. Doing so ensures that an agency’s evidence generation activities are relevant to the needs of that agency and its stakeholders.
Increase Collaboration among Agency Leaders
The Evidence Act and other complementary efforts present a vision for the Federal Government that breaks down functional silos like evaluation, performance, and strategic planning, and in their place offers coordinated functions and leadership in service of mission delivery. Central to this vision is the idea that an agency’s leaders should strategically work across their functional areas and collaborate to meet their agency’s objectives. For example, the Evidence Act creates three senior-level positions (the Chief Data Officer, Evaluation Officer, and Statistical Official), and specifically calls on these newly-designated leaders to work together to support the use of evidence and data in their agencies. The Act also requires these newly-designated leaders to coordinate closely with other agency leaders, like the agency Performance Improvement Officer, Chief Information Officer, and others, to fulfill their duties. In practice, this means that agency officials should look beyond their typical partners to consider how others, like the newly-designated officials, can support and enhance their functions.
Better Align Agency Functions
This vision for better coordination extends beyond agency leaders to agency functions. For example, the process to develop a learning agenda necessarily crosses other agency areas, like strategic planning, operations, regulatory activity, performance, program management, and others as agencies seek to identify priority questions that, when answered, will help the agency more effectively and efficiently meet its mission. More explicitly, the Evidence Act included learning agendas and capacity assessments as part of agency strategic plans, creating an opportunity for the performance and strategic planning functions to better align with evaluation, statistics, and data communities. Strategic reviews, part of the performance planning cycle, can benefit from bringing tools like the learning agenda and its priority questions to bear in helping agencies to meet their missions more effectively. As agencies think about ways to streamline and align functions, they may also identify ways to more efficiently use existing resources, including agency staff. The capacity assessment for statistics, research, evaluation, and other analysis can help agencies identify where capacity for these activities currently exists and where gaps indicate that building further capacity is needed.
Learning Agenda as the Foundation for Evidence Building and Use
The learning agenda is a systematic plan for identifying and addressing priority questions relevant to the programs, policies, and regulations of an agency; it is a tool that agencies can and should use to better use evidence in decision-making. Learning agendas were featured in the President’s 2019 and 2020 Budgets, as well as OMB’s plan to reform and reorganize the government.3 The Evidence Act now requires agencies to develop and implement multi-year learning agendas to strategically plan and prioritize learning. When used as intended, learning agendas serve as the foundation for how agencies build and use evidence. The process of developing a learning agenda requires agencies to engage stakeholders, including the public, and think critically about the priority questions that the agency needs to answer in order to more effectively meet its mission. These questions may be short- or long-term, and may address the agency’s mission (e.g., questions about program effectiveness or how well the agency is meeting its mission) or an agency’s operations (e.g., questions about the agency’s functional operations like human resources, grant making, etc.) with an emphasis on relevance to the agency.4 The learning agenda also represents an opportunity to identify those operational or management questions that cross agencies and could be answered as part of a government-wide management research agenda.
Federal agencies now have a unique opportunity to rethink how they build and use evidence to improve government effectiveness. Integrating evidence building and use into key agency processes will ensure the evidence is relevant and useful for improved decision-making. Thoughtful, deliberative planning through learning agendas and aligning evidence-building efforts with agency strategic goals and objectives will allow agencies to make the best use of scarce resources and improve mission objectives. This will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government policies and programs for the American people.
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Specific information about the timeline for agencies to submit their Evidence Act deliverables, including the Learning Agenda, Capacity Assessment, and Annual Evaluation Plans is available in OMB Circular A-11, Section 290.16. ↩
See https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BUDGET-2019-PER/pdf/BUDGET-2019-PER-4-2.pdf, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/ap_6_evidence-fy2020.pdf, and https://www.performance.gov/GovReform/Reform-and-Reorg-Plan-Final.pdf ↩