OMB Intensifies Call for Rigorous Program Evaluations

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May 23, 2012; Source: Education Week

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is increasing the pressure for federal agencies to both fund and develop the capacity to better review more rigorously tested programs. In a recent memo written by OMB Acting Director Jeffrey Zients, the OMB encouraged the use of evidence-based evaluations for the 2014 budget and provided examples of what it will be searching for in agency budget submissions. Zients wrote, “The budget is more likely to fund requests that demonstrate a commitment to developing and using evidence.” He asks each department to document how they use evidence and to demonstrate a commitment to expanding the use of evidence. Among its many recommendations, OMB specifically suggested:

  • Low-cost evaluations using administrative data or new technology;
  • Expansion of evaluation efforts within existing programs;
  • Using comparative cost-effectiveness data to allocate resources;
  • Tying grant awards to evidence;
  • Using evidence to inform enforcement of criminal, environmental and workplace-safety laws;
  • Appointing a high-level official to strengthen agency evaluation capacity.

The trickle-down effect of these guidelines is sure to impact the way nonprofits apply for and utilize government funding to sustain their programming. Instead of funding “good ideas,” government dollars will increasingly go to those who deliver both services and quantitative assurances that the programs they are delivering actually work. When submissions are made to federal agencies for grant money, OMB suggests that points can be assigned to applicants based on integration of high-quality evaluation efforts and evidence-based practices. Additionally, following the lead of agencies such as the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, applying a tiered framework to assess the evidence supporting a proposed project and to determine appropriate funding levels will be encouraged.

OMB also suggests that agencies look for a quick approach to obtaining the desired research itself. Instead of using traditional randomized, controlled trials that can be very costly both in terms of years and dollars, the OMB highlights a brief by the Washington-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy as a way to use existing administrative data for quicker turnaround and lower-cost experimental evaluations. It also suggested that federal agencies should follow the lead of the Labor and Justice departments’ “Pay for Success” models in which private groups invest in promising interventions to solve social problems and are paid back by federal grants if they accomplish their goals.

Under the suggested approaches outlined by the OMB, programs supported by strong evidence would be more eligible for funding, a sigh of relief for those who have strong research supporting their efforts. For those who do not, however, this memo serves as a wake-up call that program evaluation is not to be taken lightly or swept aside. – Saras Chung