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Will the Trump White House Hold Agencies Accountable for Performance Improvements?

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently issued guidance to federal agencies about how they can improve performance on key goals. While past administrations have engaged in similar efforts to review program effectiveness and agency operations, the new directive clarifies that the Trump administration intends to continue processes similar to those undertaken by recent Republican and Democratic administrations, while signaling a new focus on evidence-building initiatives.

How does the White House plan to hold federal agencies accountable for improving performance?

The White House announced that it will engage agencies this summer in perennial “strategic reviews” of management activities related to achieving agency missions, assessing risks, and fulfilling management priorities. OMB’s recent guidance suggests continued efforts by the Trump administration to engage productively in topics related to improve foreign assistance evaluation and implement the new President’s Management Agenda (PMA)’s goals, some of which sync to the unanimous recommendations of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking issued in September 2017.

OMB’s strategic review discussions with agencies will (1) assess agency strategic objectives aligned with their mission statements; (2) review risks that could impact the achievement of strategic and performance goals; and (3) evaluate progress in achieving other key management priorities, such as administrative reorganization efforts. OMB intends that these reviews will enable agencies and the White House to prioritize resources and policy proposals for the 2020 budget submission.

How does the Trump administration’s new guidance encourage evidence-building activities?

The April guidance expands on routine direction to agencies (see section 270 of OMB Circular A-11) with new, specific details about preparing for strategic reviews, including how to address the generation and use of evidence in government.

Earlier in 2018, the Trump administration offered mixed signals about its support for the generation and use of evidence. The new guidance from OMB offers much clearer signals. For example, the guidance clarifies that agencies will be asked about progress in developing learning agendas, or strategic plans for evidence-building activities.

The idea of agencies developing a learning agenda was proposed by the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking as a bipartisan tool for better articulating government’s research needs and knowledge gaps (see Rec. 5-2). The proposal is embodied in legislation under consideration in Congress.

What are the likely impacts of government “learning agendas?”

Learning agendas could revolutionize government’s ability to communicate research priorities to better align the supply of evidence with the real demands from policymakers. A learning agenda is a tool that outlines an agency-specific strategy for evidence building, including by identifying operational goals and the key questions necessary to be answered to determine whether the objectives of a program are met.

Today, several agencies already have developed these tools, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration (SBA). SBA’s agenda has already led to some real progress, with a team of university researchers recently reaching out to SBA about how to access data for addressing one of the questions identified in the SBA learning agenda.

Will all agencies be required by the Trump administration to make “learning agendas?”

While agencies are not yet mandated to develop these plans, OMB Associate Director Peter Warren clarified on May 2 during a public event that all agencies are expected to be working on learning agendas. The inclusion of learning agendas within the OMB dialogue on strategic reviews is a positive development in that a resource that has been useful for some agencies could soon become more pervasive across government.

Will the Trump administration’s reviews actually improve government?

While it’s too early to tell how successful the strategic reviews will be in achieving their wide-ranging goals and ultimately driving agency performance improvements, the administration’s willingness to prominently incorporate aspects of the commission recommendations, such as learning agendas, offer promising signals about the administration’s approach to evidence-based policymaking. Perhaps more will be known about the success or limitation of the process after the initial reviews launch in the summer of 2018.

As Kathy Newcomer and I wrote in a recent paper on presidential evidence initiatives, the strategic review meetings and the materials compiled will only be useful if the framework can truly promote agency learning, achieve coordination across multiple parts of program operations, sustain the audience, and if implemented in a way that achieves support from agencies. Achieving these key points requires leadership and attentiveness to designing reasonable goals and analyzing quality metrics with reliable data.

We all hope the effort will be productive in encouraging more evidence-informed policies and practices in government, including proposals in the 2020 budget for improving government’s effectiveness and efficiency.

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