The Biden administration wants agencies to focus more on results than compliance as they meet requirements of the Evidence Act, according to new guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget.
In a memo signed Tuesday and set to publish on OMB’s website Wednesday morning, acting Director Shalanda Young detailed the administration’s position on the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, or Evidence Act, which passed during the previous administration.
The Trump administration’s OMB issued guidance on the law, but Biden’s OMB opted to publish its own guidance and build on a presidential memo signed shortly after inauguration titled “Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking.”
The new memo “reaffirms and expands on previous OMB guidance” with regard to the Evidence Act, specifically the department-level Learning Agendas that outline what agency data will be collected, how it will be analyzed and how the results of those analyses will be used to inform management decisions. Per the law, those agendas must address “policy questions relevant to the programs, policies and regulations of the agency.”
The memo also offers guidance on agencies’ Evaluation Plans detailing the annual review of their data collection and analyses programs.
“Agencies have already begun the hard work of implementing Learning Agendas and Annual Evaluation Plans; OMB recognizes and applauds these efforts, which were often done under very challenging conditions,” the memo states. “While OMB is encouraged by the commitment and progress so far, there is more to do.”
The June 29 memo repeatedly asks agencies to consider this effort as more than a compliance exercise.
“Agencies should not simply produce the required documents and then turn their attention elsewhere; success requires that agencies develop processes and practices that establish habitual and routine reliance on evidence across agency functions and demand new or better evidence when it is needed,” the memo states. “OMB has provided, and will continue to provide, agencies with flexibility whenever possible for these Title I deliverables so that they can implement these requirements of the Evidence Act in ways that are meaningful and long-lasting. OMB’s focus is on outcomes[.]”
As such, the memo urges agencies to spend time developing the Learning Agenda so that it’s properly tuned to the needs of the employees and mission.
“The process of developing the Learning Agenda—i.e., engaging stakeholders, reviewing available evidence, developing questions, planning and undertaking activities, disseminating and using results, and refining questions based on evidence generated—may be equally if not more beneficial than the resulting document itself,” the memo states. “The value of the Learning Agenda will only be realized if agencies have the flexibility to pivot and adjust the document as needed when new evidence is generated or as priorities change.”
Once identified, those “priority questions are the ‘North Star’ of the Learning Agenda,” while “the data and methods identified to address them provide the roadmap to get there.”
The memo gives additional advice on the ways evidence can be collected, addressing previous methods identified in OMB guidance, including “foundational fact finding, policy analysis, program evaluation, and performance measurement,” while adding greatly to the list.
“These approaches include, but are not limited to: pilot projects, randomized controlled trials, quantitative survey research and statistical analysis, qualitative research, ethnography, research based on data linkages in which records from two or more datasets that refer to the same entity are joined, well-established processes for community engagement and inclusion in research, and other approaches that may be informed by the social and behavioral sciences and data science,” the new guidance states. “Agencies may consider other methods as well, consistent with OMB guidance, such as risk assessments and inclusive methodologies including, but not limited to, participatory, emancipatory, community-based, user-led, and partnership research.”
Agencies are meant to rely on data for decision-making and to change course if the evidence points in a different direction. Similarly, the annual evaluations should be used to tune the Learning Agendas on a yearly basis, with a new agenda published every four years.
The memo also gives specific guidance on the people who should fill the critical role of evaluation officers, who will be key to ensuring these programs are administered in a way that leads to good evidence building, rather than cherry-picking data to meet political ends.
A Trump administration OMB memo issued in 2019 stated that evaluation officers should be appointed “without regard to political affiliation” but the latest memo takes that further.
“OMB has determined that the role should be filled by a senior career employee with the skills and expertise to maintain principles of scientific integrity throughout the evaluation process, ensure adherence to the agency evaluation policy, and maintain the standards” outlined in the memo on scientific integrity.
The latest guidance also suggests this shouldn’t merely be a task tacked on to another senior official’s duties.
“Critically, the evaluation officer must also have sufficient time and resources to lead and execute this work, which requires limiting, to the extent practicable, the number of other roles that the evaluation officer is tasked to fill,” the June memo states.
The Evidence Act only applies to the 24 civilian agencies covered under the CFO Act, but OMB is pushing this guidance out to all federal entities.
“To achieve governmentwide implementation of Title I of the Evidence Act, it is OMB’s expectation that small agencies, non-CFO Act agencies, and sub-components such as bureaus and sub-agencies will also take up this call and undertake the activities outlined in this guidance to the extent practicable,” the memo states.