Ray of Sunlight at the Pentagon: Defense Department adopts first evaluation policy

On January 13, the Pentagon adopted its first-ever Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation (AM&E) Policy for security cooperation programs. The new policy commits the Defense Department to systematically examine what’s working and what’s not with security cooperation programs, finally requiring a level of scrutiny that is already in place at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the State Department.

The Department of Defense’s (DoD) security cooperation programs total $9 billion annually. That’s 30 percent larger than the annual budget of PEPFAR. Their reach is equally substantial, supporting the training and equipping of partner country militaries in activities ranging from fighting drug traffickers to taking part in multinational military engagements.

MFAN has long called for greater transparency and evaluation of these foreign aid programs, as they have operated with little sunlight or independent review. A recent Congressional Research Service report found that, “Many U.S. [building partner capacity] efforts over the years have not achieved desired results. Among the concrete reasons cited are the levels of U.S. effort, deficiencies in U.S. program design and execution, and cultural, social, and economic factors in recipient countries.”

The Pentagon’s new evaluation policy is a welcome step to begin to address these shortcomings. Here are 5 highlights:

  1. Sets a high standard. The policy sends an important signal that the Department’s assessments, monitoring, and evaluations should be of sound quality, in accordance with “U.S. Government and international standards and best practices.”
  1. Centralizes evaluations (the ‘E’); decentralizes assessments and monitoring (the ‘AM’). The policy empowers an explicit focal point for evaluations, located within the Department’s policy arm, to coordinate “centralized, independent, and rigorous” reviews. In contrast, the ongoing work of assessment and monitoring will take place generally within the Department’s Geographic Combatant Commands, which may create challenges for standardized implementation and cross-program learning.
  1. Focuses on large programs. The policy requires assessment, monitoring, and evaluation only for “significant security cooperation programs.” The intent seems to be to steer the Department’s AM&E efforts away from smaller activities toward larger, resource-intensive programs. It remains to be seen how seriously the policy is implemented and what programs are deemed “significant” enough for assessment, monitoring, and evaluation.
  1. Promotes learning. Within 30 days of the completion of an evaluation, Department officials are encouraged to respond with a plan and a timeline for complying with recommendations and a point of contact for implementation.
  1. Requires evaluation summaries to be posted online. In a nod to increased transparency, the policy requires that non-classified summaries of evaluations be posted online at defense.gov within 90 days of an evaluation’s completion. These 2-4 page summaries should include the evaluation questions, methodology, key findings, and recommendations.

Overall, this is a positive step toward cultivating a culture and practice of learning and improvement at the Pentagon. The policy incorporates many of the principles that Congress and MFAN have embraced, including important elements of the recently enacted “Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act” and the annual Defense Authorization bill. It also contains encouraging elements such as a call for collaboration across agencies and coordination with local actors.

But implementation, of course, will be critical. Some of the questions we’ll be asking are:

  • How will DoD implement this policy, and in what timeframe?
  • What resources will DoD and Congress direct to implement this policy, both for the central evaluation function and the decentralized assessment and monitoring activities?
  • How will we know the policy is working? DoD could do what USAID has done and commission periodic, independent studies on both the quality and the uptake of its evaluations to assess how this knowledge is informing programs and budgets.
  • Will DoD expand AM&E further to better inform programming? How will DoD determine which programs outside the new policy would benefit from greater assessment, monitoring, and evaluation?

This is an important opportunity for the Department to operate more openly, responsively, and effectively. MFAN will continue to work to ensure it does so.

See MFAN’s new recommendations for Congress and the administration here.

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