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Presidential Evidence Initiatives: Lessons from the Bush and Obama Administrations

This technical paper outlines what evidence-based policy was intended to represent for the Bush and Obama administrations, then highlights the initiatives each pursued.

Since the 1990’s calls for assessing how well government programs work have been around for decades. The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations both espoused support for the generation and use of evidence to guide and improve government management. The two presidents brought very different professional experiences, political views, and policy advisors to the job as chief executive of the federal bureaucracy, yet their “President’s Management Agendas” established similar expectations about the use of evaluation and performance information.

This paper provides an overview of each administration’s approach, then highlights four key lessons for improving frameworks for government performance and better enabling evidence-based policymaking in practice:

  • Calibrate Evidence-Building Activities to Achieve Learning. The calibration of evidence-building activities to meet common needs for program learning must be better articulated to support engagement.
  • Coordinate Across the Evidence-Building Community. Evidence initiatives must establish better connections across the evidence-building community to engage agency staff working on performance, evaluation, statistical, and other activities to leverage their strengths and generate synergies for producing relevant and timely evidence.
  • Acquire and Sustain Audiences of Potential Users. Government initiatives to improve program performance by using available evidence need to engage agency leaders and other evidence consumers to identify the types of information that will be most useful to inform decision-making.
  • Implement Initiatives Effectively. Evidence-building capacity of federal agencies should be strategically enhanced, and success stories about the use of evaluation and other relevant forms of evidence to improve agency performance should be systematically collected and shared.

The evidence initiatives over the past 20 years suggest that future initiatives aimed at improving government’s effectiveness can certainly be better designed to integrate performance measurement and evaluation activities with the numerous other efforts within the evidence-building community. Doing so stands to improve how efforts to build evidence occur, and better inform the variety of uses among potential users.

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