In my nearly 15 years working at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), I have seen a range of approaches to, and emphasis on, evaluation at the Agency. Now, from my perch as Director of USAID’s Office of Learning, Evaluation and Research, I am an eager consumer of reports, such as this recent one from The Lugar Center and the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), which review our evaluation system and support its continual evolution. USAID welcomes the “From Evidence to Learning: Recommendations to Improve U.S. Foreign Assistance Evaluation” report. It notes the significant progress U.S. foreign assistance agencies have made toward better quality and use of evaluations and provides recommendations to continue to advance our work. We agree with the report’s recommendations, and are already making progress on many of them.
USAID has made great strides in improving evaluation quality and use of evaluation findings to inform decisions and improve programs. We developed an approach to organizational learning and adaptive management that we call Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA). CLA includes a set of practices that support the achievement of development results by facilitating collaboration and ensuring new learning is used to adjust programs. And notably, we incorporated learning requirements throughout the Program Cycle, USAID’s strategic planning and program management process. We have also developed a series of monitoring, evaluation and learning toolkits for Agency staff and implementing partners to support these requirements.
We are still working on some areas, such as increasing the use of learning agendas across the Agency, which we think can greatly contribute to using evidence for decision-making. The Office of Management and Budget defines a learning agenda as a set of questions an agency conducts that, when answered, enables it to work more effectively and efficiently. The importance of learning agendas has become more recognized recently, with the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016 (PL 114-191) and the recommendations from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking calling for agencies to develop evidence plans or learning agendas.
Last year, USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL) studied the learning agendas in use at USAID. This study highlighted important benefits of learning agendas — staff prioritizing the use of evidence in decision-making, thinking more intentionally about the kind of data they need to support that decision-making, and as a result, allocating data gathering resources more efficiently. PPL has developed a range of publicly available tools from this work, as well as connected interested parties to foster peer learning on the topic of learning agendas. We are also applying these findings ourselves, and have initiated a Program Cycle Learning Agenda as a guiding framework for the Agency to continually learn from and adapt the policies and technical assistance related to our programming processes.
Finally, we are working to improve the ways evaluation findings are shared with stakeholders. We want to shift the thinking on our evaluation products, moving beyond narrative reports to help stakeholders make sense of evaluation findings and take action on them. These could include better visualization, podcasts, videos, events and other creative means. We are also working with Agency leaders on the role they play to demand evidence, requesting on a more regular basis how evidence has improved program design or how evidence should contribute to programmatic adjustments.
We remain committed to building an evaluation practice that values good planning and design, independent judgment, high-quality methods, and evidence-based findings. By building intentional and strategic learning into our Agency’s DNA, we ensure we are using evidence to adapt programs to achieve more sustainable development results and foster self-reliance, helping our partner countries as they progress along their own development journey.
Melissa Patsalides is the Director of USAID’s Office of Learning, Evaluation and Research in the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning.
This piece was authored in conjunction with MFAN and The Lugar Center’s report: From Evidence to Learning: Recommendations to Improve U.S. Foreign Assistance Evaluation.
Photo credit: Kelley Lynch