Supporting Effective Policymaking through the Development of Strategic Evidence Plans

By Kelly Fitzsimmons
September 3, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement has put a stark spotlight on the racial and economic inequities that stem from policies and practices in health, housing, education, employment, criminal justice, and other domains. There is immense urgency for systemic reforms and effective solutions that deliver equitable outcomes for communities of color and low-income communities. Federal, state and local government agencies, along with organizations that serve our communities, need high-quality data and evidence to address these pressing challenges, and to identify cost-effective solutions that reduce persistence disparities in outcomes that are too often based on race, income and geography.

If we want more effective solutions and better outcomes, we have to improve the way evidence is generated and used, and the federal government must play a leading role in strengthening the evidence ecosystem. Our friends at Results for America (RFA) have developed a guide that outlines how the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which serves as the central coordinator for many federal government-wide processes, can most effectively harness data and evidence to advance an equitable economic recovery. The guide contains many essential recommendations for strengthening evidence generation and use in the federal government, and is a valuable tool. At Project Evident, we specifically want to highlight RFA’s call that the OMB “promote innovation, support continuous improvement, and scale proven solutions across programs” through Strategic Evidence Plans.

What is a Strategic Evidence Plan?

Just as a Strategic Plan ensures that an organization’s decision-making is intentional and is in service of measurable goals, a Strategic Evidence Plan (SEP) ensures that an organization’s efforts to use data for evaluating and improving its work are planful and can advance its vision for impact. The SEP is a roadmap that helps organizations:

  • Articulate a vision for how evidence can advance strategic priorities within a specific timeline, and identify concrete goals to help achieve that vision;
  • Develop a learning agenda that prioritizes critical gaps in knowledge and evidence in support of the vision and goals;
  • Identify investments and actions needed to achieve the vision and goals, based on assessments of operating context and institutional capacity (including tools, data, technology and talent); and
  • Outline a sequence of actionable steps to implement the investments and actions.

Project Evident pioneered the SEP process with nonprofit social sector organizations with the recognition that the field needed a new, strategic approach to continuous evidence building that goes beyond the one-study-at-a-time approach, and that advances actionable, practical knowledge needed to build and scale solutions. SEPs are also designed to leverage and prioritize the voices of practitioners and public administrators who are closest to the implementation of programs and policies in the communities, making the process of building evidence more equitable than it traditionally has been.

“The Strategic Evidence Planning process is fresh, exciting, nimble, and a different approach grounded in the real world.”

Matthew Melmed, CEO, ZERO TO THREE

We’ve since worked with many different types of public and private organizations, including government agencies at the state and local level (like local education authorities), to develop SEPs that have empowered practitioners, policymakers and administrators to accelerate investments in R&D infrastructure and practices, and build the evidence that they need to improve outcomes for their communities. We’ve learned that SEPs can be customized to benefit organizations of different sizes and types, as they are grounded in each agency’s vision for impact, evidence goals, and operational reality.

Why does the federal government need Strategic Evidence Plans?

The final report from the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking — to which I testified in 2016 on the importance of a more strategic approach to evidence building — found that federal departments “frequently do not have an integrated approach or a long-range plan for evidence building” and that OMB’s existing infrastructure and organizational capacity “does not optimize the agency’s ability to  coordinate evidence building across the federal government.” The Commission recognized the importance of improving the institutional capacity and culture of federal agencies to use data and evidence in policymaking, and emphasized that agencies “must  be  empowered  and  organized  to  work  together  and  accomplish  shared  goals.” 

In response to the Commission’s findings, the 2019 Evidence Act mandates that every agency develop a multi-year learning agenda that outlines evidence priorities, and an annual evaluation plan describing significant evaluation undertakings. The legislation also asks agencies to conduct “capacity assessments for research for statistics, evaluation, research and analysis” as a part of their strategic planning process every four years.

All of these pieces — learning agendas, capacity assessments and evaluation plans — are integral components of Project Evident’s SEP process. The key differences are that they are connected to a concrete vision for impact and time-bound evidence goals, and are developed as part of a seamless progression to ensure coherent implementation. For example, we work to ensure that learning agendas for our partners are closely aligned with their goals for evidence building. Our signature “context and capacity review” process takes a holistic approach to assessing an organization’s ability to execute on their evidence goals, including staffing, technology, partnerships, and culture of data use and learning — leading to a clear roadmap that outlines the investments and activities for capacity building and continuous evidence generation. As such, SEPs can be a vital tool to support evidence-based policymaking across government agencies.

“Project Evident brings strategy to evaluation, so that organizations know what kind of evidence
to build when.”

Saskia Levy Thompson, The Carnegie Corporation of New York

We strongly recommend that the OMB and individual federal agencies develop SEPs that are customized for each agency’s funding and policy priorities, evidence goals and capacity, but that are also aligned on a shared vision for cross-cutting impact across policy domains and processes for collaboration. In developing these plans, we also encourage federal agencies to:

  • Engage government agencies, service providers and their constituents to ensure that the evidence goals and learning agendas for federal agencies reflect the needs of different communities and stakeholders;
  • Provide resources to government agencies and service providers at the state and local level to develop their own SEPs for continuous evidence generation that can inform the federal government’s knowledge needs; and
  • Support a more balanced ratio of summative and large-scale evaluations to smaller-scale, rapid cycle evaluations to test improvements and adaptations, as well as implementation studies that help us learn what works for whom and under what circumstances.

Project Evident developed the SEP with the belief that by helping organizations take a more strategic approach to building evidence and enhancing their capacity for continuous data use, learning, and evaluation as a core part of their operations, we can surface and scale effective solutions that improve outcomes for our communities. While we initially piloted the process with nonprofits, our work with public agencies at the state and local level have demonstrated the value that a SEP can bring to government agencies and the impact it can have on communities by improving programs and policies.