The White House recently issued first of its kind guidance for how federal agencies should approach evaluating foreign assistance activities. The guidance document, issued without fanfare by White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney, takes positive steps to clarify the administration’s position on the topic of evidence-based policymaking. The Bipartisan Policy Center previously suggested the Trump administration’s position on evidence-based policymaking was “confusing,” and the guidance from January 2018 begins to clarify that stance.
Why was the guidance issued and what does it say?
In 2016, bipartisan legislation called the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (P.L. 114-191) unanimously passed the House and Senate, and was subsequently signed into law by President Obama. The legislation called for the president, who delegated authority to OMB, to issue guidance for monitoring and evaluating foreign assistance programs across government.
The 15-page guidance document outlines specific principles, definitions, and practices to be used in developing agency-specific plans for monitoring and evaluating foreign assistance. The guidelines call for agencies to consider seven principles for monitoring and evaluation, including (1) designed and timed for use, (2) application of best methods available, (3) practical and efficiency, (4) planned early in project timelines, (5) sufficiently resourced, (6) conducted ethically, and (7) shared transparently. The guidelines further specify that evaluations should be impartial, unbiased, relevant, participatory, shared widely, credible, and collaborative.
What do the guidelines mean for federal agencies?
For agencies involved in foreign assistance activities, the guidelines clarify expectations for how the programs assess implementation and impacts. OMB will require by January 2019 that affected federal agencies put into place policies and procedures to implement the guidelines and use evaluation findings in program implementation.
How does the guidance apply to agencies that do not award foreign assistance?
At this time the guidelines are confined to agencies that implement foreign assistance programs, however, the guidelines may reflect guidance OMB could issue if the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (HR 4174) is enacted.
What does the guidance say about the Trump administration’s position on evidence-based policymaking?
The guidelines represent a major positive indication from the Trump administration about its support for the generation and use of evidence to inform program implementation. The guidance specifically states that “monitoring and evaluation activities can?assess the extent to which programs are progressing as designed, and if changes to the program?are necessary.” This statement and the overall tenor of the recommendations are consistent with the vision of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking which unanimously recognized the need for the routine use of evidence to inform program and policy decisions.
The delegation of the authority to OMB Director Mulvaney suggests a recognition of the need for OMB to coordinate evidence-building activities in the Executive Branch, a recommendation of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking in its final report issued in September 2017 (see Recommendation 5-3).
How have professional evaluation and non-profit organizations responded to the guidance?
The non-profit American Evaluation Association, a professional association of program evaluators, sent a supportive statement in January 2018 to OMB Director Mulvaney, applauding the administration’s guidance as consistent with that association’s principles and practices.
The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) similarly issued a statement on January 19, 2018, commending the process by which the guidelines were developed and applauding the standards established by the guidance.