OMB memo tells agencies to back up future budget requests with evidence

The Biden administration is expecting agencies to back up future budget requests with evidence and program performance metrics — or at least provide a plan to gather these insights.

The Office of Management and Budget, in a memo released Wednesday, is directing agencies to complete a strategic plan for evidence-building that will last through fiscal 2026.

As part of the strategic plan, agencies will complete draft learning agendas and capacity assessments before the end of the fiscal year.

The memo, the latest in a multi-part series of guidance documents to implement the 2019 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, also directs agencies without evaluation policies to submit a draft version no later than by Sept. 30, and to publicly post the policies no later than February 2022.

OMB said agencies should use evidence to support everything from human capital management, to grantmaking and administering programs.

“OMB expects that agency budget requests will be justified by evidence to the extent possible. When such justification is not possible, that suggests an area where more or better evidence should be built,” the memo states.

In addition to making evidence-building part of the annual budget process, OMB is also directing agencies to consider how their evaluation work can promote the administration’s priority to improve equity in government services.

OMB Acting Director Shalanda Young, in the memo to agencies, said the learning agendas required by the Evidence Act should address a few key questions: “What is it that our agency needs to do, what do we need to know to do it best, and what do we wish we knew?”

As part of this same timeline, agencies must also have a final capacity assessment in place by February 2022 that inventories of an agency’s staffing, funding and infrastructure focused on evidence-building work.

“While agencies may be concerned with suggesting areas for improvement, it is only with this information that OMB and ultimately Congress can recognize where investments are needed,” the memo states.

As part of this capacity-building effort, the memo directs agency chief human capital officers to help evaluation officers to develop position descriptions that “meet the demands of an evaluation workforce with wide-ranging skills.”

“OMB expects agencies’ investments in evaluation to extend to hiring, retaining, and developing qualified employees to oversee evaluation activities, including the work of the agency’s Evaluation Officer,” the memo states.

Wednesday’s guidance stems from a memo President Joe Biden signed in January, which raised the profile of senior career officials at scientific agencies and put protections in place to prevent political appointees from interfering with the work of career federal scientists.

The memo directs agencies to update their learning agendas each year. OMB said regularly updated learning agendas would put agencies on a path to “continuous improvement,” which will include reviewing available data and further refining questions.

“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. The conversations that give rise to priority questions should continue as new evidence is developed, shared, and brought to bear on decision-making and agency functions, spurring new conversations and new questions,” the memo states.

Agency evaluation officers will lead work on these documents. The memo specifies evaluation officers should be senior career employees “with the skills and expertise to maintain principles of scientific integrity throughout the evaluation process.”

The memo also directs the evaluation officer to work with the chief data officer and statistical official. OMB in September 2019 held an orientation for agency chief data officers, evaluation officers and statistical officials.

OMB also expects agency heads to play key roles in advancing evidence building and use in their agencies by prioritizing Evidence Act implementation and related activities.

“This effort demands a comprehensive approach, and implementing this vision will require resources and prioritization from leaders. At the same time, this commitment to an evidence-based government cannot happen solely at the top or in isolated analytical offices, but rather must be embedded throughout each agency, in program offices and management offices, and adopted by the hardworking civil servants who serve on behalf of the American people.”

OMB in the memo directs agencies to share best practices in drafting learning agendas and evaluation work, and engaging on cross-cutting priorities such as improving equity of government services addressing climate change and tackling government management challenges.

The memo also states OMB still soon launch to provide additional updates.

Data Foundation President Nick Hart said OMB’s development of the guidance included feedback from members of the organization’s board of directors and its Data Coalition Initiative.

“The broad applicability of OMB’s new guidance to the whole of government suggests the promise of coherent planning, leadership, capacity, and resources for generating actionable evidence that can both address policymaker needs and improve government services for the American people,” Hart said. “OMB’s new guidance provides clarity for agencies and partners about the role of stakeholder engagement and coordination on data and evidence capabilities in order to generate useful evidence that is then actually used in practice.”

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