2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence Agency Snapshots: The Who and The What

These Federal Agency Snapshots showcase how nine agencies lead the federal government in evidence-based policy

Launched in 2013, Results for America’s annual Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence (Federal Standard of Excellence) serves as a “north star” for how federal agencies and departments can consistently and effectively use data and evidence in budget, policy, and management decisions to achieve better outcomes for their residents.

The following Federal Standard of Excellence Agency Snapshots provide a glimpse into nine agencies’ evidence-based policy agenda. The Snapshots highlight key accomplishments and areas for future progress. Many of these practices and efforts described below are exemplary models that all federal agencies and departments can follow as they seek to improve results for communities, families, and children across the country.

In the recently released 2020 Federal Standard of Excellence, the nine leading federal agencies and departments include:

  • Administration for Children and Families (within HHS)
  • Administration for Community Living (within HHS)
  • U.S. Agency for International Development
  • AmeriCorps (formerly the Corporation for National and Community Service)
  • U.S. Department of Education
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • U.S. Department of Labor
  • Millennium Challenge Corporation
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (within HHS)

To learn more about how these agencies and departments continue to lead in federal evidence-based policy, visit the 2020 Federal Standard of Excellence here. To learn more about the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act, visit Results for America’s resource hub.

Administration for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Even prior to the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act), the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services invested in a robust approach to infuse data and evidence in budget, policy, and management decisions. The agency’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning, Research, and Evaluations leads the Office of Planning Research and Evaluation and oversees an evaluation team of 68 staff. In FY20, ACF had a total research and evaluation budget of $208 million. In fact, ACF was among the first of federal agencies to publicly release an agency-wide evaluation framework with its FY12 policy “to govern our planning, conduct, and use of evaluation.”

One of the results of ACF’s long-standing expertise in research and evaluation is the support it provides to grantees on evaluation, evidence-building, data-driven innovation, and implementation of evidence-based programs. For example, ACF’s TANF Data Innovation Project supports cohorts of states to improve the effectiveness of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs by helping them better leverage human services data. This has helped states enhance data analytics for program improvement and gain better understanding of issues so that they can strengthen integrated data systems and improve program integrity and payments.

ACF’s Head Start competitive grant program considers grantee past performance as a condition of continued funding through the Head Start Designation Renewal System. In two smaller grant programs, Personal Responsibility Education Program and Sexual Risk Avoidance Education, grantees must implement evidence-informed or research-based interventions. The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) enables states to use federal funds to provide enhanced support to children and families and prevent foster care placements through the provision of evidence-based services. ACF conducts an independent systematic review to designate programs as evidence- based as eligible for federal funds.

ACF’s investment in its research and evaluation activities, personnel, and capacities support an organizational culture focused on evidence-building, learning, and innovation. These activities are helping states and grantees improve program and service delivery for children, families, and parents across the country.

To advance the agency’s investments in evidence-based policymaking, ACF may consider issuing updated data policies and practices that coincide with OPEN Data Government Act implementation, based on forthcoming White House Office of Management and Budget guidance.

Read more about Administration for Children and Families in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

Administration for Community Living
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The Administration for Community Living (ACL), an operating division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, first participated in the 2018 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence, and has since accelerated its efforts to build an agency focused on performance and research.

ACL’s centralized capacity for performance, research, and evaluation is housed in the Office of Performance and Evaluation (OPE). The Director of OPE serves as the agency’s evaluation and performance officer with responsibility for coordinating Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act) implementation within the operating division. The OPE Director also serves on the HHS data council, HHS Data Governance Board, and Federal Interagency Council on Evaluation Policy.

To resource the agency evaluation and research activities, in FY20, ACL invested more than 1% of its overall budget in research and evaluation activities — a total of $22.1 million, compared with $18.8 million, or 0.85% in FY19 — a first for the agency since FY18. Three other federal agencies (USAID, AmeriCorps, and MCC) have invested 1% or more of their budget in research and evaluation, a Results for America policy recommendation for all governments. As part of its growing efforts to increase the agency’s evidenced-based policy capabilities, OPE supports training for the agency’s program staff on evidence-based grantmaking, which will enhance the agency’s ability to invest in better results and outcomes.

Of particular note, ACL is committed to implementing the Evidence Act even though, because of its status as a component of a CFO Act agency, it is not mandated to do so. This year alone, the agency has made major strides in meeting the requirements of the Evidence Act by issuing a FY22 Evaluation Plan, developing an Interim Learning Agenda, participating in the development of an HHS-wide Evidence Capacity Assessment, and drafting a primer on data governance (akin to the Data Governance Body that sets and enforces priorities for managing data as a strategic asset required by the Evidence Act). This growing investment in, and capacity for, research and evaluation will benefit the agency as it continues to execute its mission to serve aging populations across the country.

In future years ACL will focus on improving its use of evidence as part of the process for making competitive and noncompetitive grant awards.

Read more about Administration for Community Living in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

U.S. Agency for International Development

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) continues to be a leader in data-driven innovation and evidence-based investing. As part of these efforts, the Agency invests in research and development to scale effective innovations through the Grand Challenges for Development grant competition. To date, this initiative has funded $155 million in grants and technical assistance for 528 innovators in 107 countries, many of which have secured sustainable funding. A similar program, the Development Innovations Ventures (DIV), considers evidence of effectiveness to fund and scale grantees with innovative solutions. Over the past eight years, DIV has invested $118 million in nearly 200 innovations across 45 countries.

To solidify these approaches, USAID has continued to build its capacity for innovation and evidence-based policymaking with the support of key research and evaluation leaders. In FY19, the agency appointed a Chief Innovation Officer to advocate and promote a multi-sector innovation strategy. In FY20, USAID increased the coordination of its evidence and data leaders by holding regular meetings between its Chief Data Officer, Chief Evaluation Officer, Statistical officer, and the leaders of the Office of Learning, Evaluation and Research. These leaders are focused on continuous learning to make sure that the Agency is continually improving results, while also implementing the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act.

This ethos of continual improvement is captured in the Agency’s learning agenda, “Self-Reliance Learning Agenda: Evidence to Support the Journey to Self-Reliance.” This learning agenda, which was developed using extensive stakeholder engagement, lays out the key research questions for the Agency and the larger international development field. In FY20, USAID began stakeholder engagement around a common evidence framework to inform Agency programmatic and strategic decision-making funding and research decisions — this is an important new step to help USAID apply a more consistent approach to its evidence-building activities and using evidence to inform decisions. Taken together, all of these tools and structures help USAID continue to leverage evidence to build knowledge and drive results-oriented investments.

In the coming year, USAID should proceed with OPEN Data Government Act implementation, based on forthcoming White House Office of Management and Budget guidance. Additionally, the agency should consider consolidating its disparate, issued-based clearinghouses into a single, one-stop-shop for evidence.

Read more about the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

AmeriCorps

Over the past several years, AmeriCorps (the operating name adopted for the Corporation for National and Community Service) has been the federal government’s leader on evidence-based investing. In FY20, the agency’s flagship grant program, AmeriCorps State and National, invested the majority of its grants in interventions with a moderate or strong evidence base. The allocation of 51% of funds to evidence-based grantees in FY20, a 10% increase from FY19, constitutes a major achievement and is delivering real impact in communities across the country.

This milestone is a result of the agency’s rigorous approach to grantmaking which provides preference to grantees that propose evidence-based programs (the details of this grantmaking process are described in a Results for America case study, Improving Elementary School Literacy in Minnesota by Prioritizing Evidence of Effectiveness in AmeriCorps, published in 2019). This approach has also had significant influence at the state-level with 48 states adopting the same preference point model in their state grantmaking process.

The Office of Research and Evaluation provides critical support in increasing the agency’s evidence-based investments. The Office created resources to help the national service field identify and implement evidenced-based interventions and also provided individualized technical assistance to grantees to help them evaluate their efforts. Along the way, the Office of Research and Evaluation also continued to build the overall capacity of the agency by developing key resources such as the Strategic Evidence Plan and Evidence Exchange.

Through these efforts, AmeriCorps has spread and scaled evidence-based interventions in order to deliver better results for communities across the country.

To advance the agency’s investments in evidence-based policymaking, CNCS should address its need for an updated and comprehensive data inventory and should proceed with OPEN Data Government Act implementation based on forthcoming White House Office of Management and Budget guidance.

Read more about AmeriCorps in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

U.S. Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has been a long-time leader in evidence-based policy. Convening key personnel from across the Department has been a driver of ED’s efforts to use information about what works to drive decision-making. This engagement of important staff has continued with the implementation of the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act) where the Evidence Leadership Group, ED Data Governance Board, the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development’s Office of the Chief Data Officer and Grants Policy Office, Office of Evidence-Based Practices and State and Grantee Relations, the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), and other units leading the Department’s Evidence Act implementation.

Beyond Evidence Act implementation, the Evidence Leadership Group helps program staff to use evidence in grantmaking in programs across the agency, including support of the Departments legislation: the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA has been a key driver of increased evidence use in states across the country (including in Nevada as detailed in a 2019 Results for America case study).

ED also provides robust technical assistance through the Regional Education Laboratories and Comprehensive Centers, which help states and districts build and use evidence. In 2020, the 10 RELs collaborated to produce a series of evidence-based COVID-19 resources and guidance on teaching and learning in a remote environment and on how to address other issues that have arisen for schools as a result of the pandemic. Beyond the RELs and Comprehensive Centers, the Department’s What Works Clearinghouse, through its evidence reviews, Intervention Reports, and Practice Guides, plays a key role in helping teachers, leaders, and researchers identify and apply evidence-based interventions.

Another example of ED’s support to states and districts includes the state longitudinal data systems grant administered by IES, which in FY20 invested $105 million in state longitudinal data systems to help 26 states and two territories better gather, analyze, and evaluate data about student performance. Moving forward, ED’s forthcoming Open Data Platform promises to offer educators and researchers even better access to the data they need to address some of the field’s most pressing problems. ED should proceed with its Evidence Act and OPEN Data Government Act implementation, based on forthcoming White House Office of Management and Budget guidance.

Read more about the U.S. Department of Education in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been a consistent leader in taking a strategic approach to research and evaluation. Even before agency learning agendas were required by the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Evidence Act (Evidence Act), HUD’s learning agenda, the Research Roadmap, linked the Department’s performance management, research, and evaluation activities. Now with the Evidence Act in place, HUD has issued an updated Research Roadmap, informed by an exemplary stakeholder engagement process that the Department has developed over the years to identify key research questions from the field.

Beyond using its own research to build evidence, HUD provides resources to help states and localities build their own capacity for using evidence and data. In FY20, the Community Compass program provided $91 million of technical assistance to help grantees effectively use federal funding, including improving program management, evaluation, and performance measurement. Also in FY20, HUD offered a new $3 million technical assistance program that helps cities recently affected by natural disasters to build fiscal health and administrative capacity, including capacity for data collection, analysis, and outcome tracking. The Department’s Community Development Block Grant program authorizes recipients to use up to 20% of their allocations for administration and planning costs that may include evaluation-capacity building efforts and evaluations.

To improve HUD’s evidence-building and knowledge about effective housing programs, HUD should provide explicit guidance for states and localities about leveraging the CDBG 20% set aside for evaluations, research, evidence-building, and data activities.

Read more about the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

U.S. Department of Labor

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) was one of the first agencies to create the position of a Chief Evaluation Officer, paving the way for the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act), which requires agencies to designate such a position in order to build a centralized capacity for research and evaluation. Several examples of the long-standing federal leadership is demonstrated by DOL’s evidence Clearinghouse for Labor Evaluation and Research (CLEAR), a model federal evidence database and DOL’s commitment to publishing public use data for researchers use. The data are generated from DOL-funded evaluations.

With the passage of the Evidence Act, DOL built on the important leadership of the Chief Evaluation Office (CEO) by establishing a new evidence-building role, with the establishment of the Chief Data Officer (CDO) and the Department’s Data Board. Established through a Secretary’s Order, the new CDO provides department-wide support on building an infrastructure to leverage data as a strategic asset. This increased collaboration between the CEO, the Department’s Chief Data Officer, Chief Performance Officer, and Chief Statistical Officer has allowed DOL to more closely coordinate its evaluation and data activities. For example, in FY19, all four of these mandated Evidence Act officials reviewed DOL’s learning agendas and related Evidence Act reports.

This coordination has also presented the opportunity to broaden the Department’s use of its robust performance management infrastructure. The Performance Management Center, a leader in the federal performance reporting, engages with the Deputy Secretary and the Chief Evaluation Officer in quarterly performance stat meetings. These dashboard reviews ensure the Department is meeting the goals described in its FY18–22 strategic plan. In addition to this internal performance structure, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) allows state and local governments to build their own performance infrastructure by using federal funds for data collection, performance management, research, and evaluation activities. WIOA encourages state and local governments to link funding to performance and evaluation data through performance-based grants and contracts.

While DOL has been a leader in creating a centralized approach to evaluation, DOL should increase its funding for such activities. Over the past several years, the appropriation for evaluation has been constant at $8 million, with the Secretary’s given authority to transfer an additional set aside amount (up to 0.75%) from Department accounts to fund research and evaluations efforts led by CEO. However, in recent years, the use of that authority has resulted in limited supplemental funds. To advance DOL’s investment in evidence-based policymaking, DOL should increase its use of this authority to set aside sufficient funds for evidence-building, as continued divestment will have long-term implications for effectiveness of federal workforce programs.

Read more about the U.S. Department of Labor in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

Millennium Challenge Corporation

As a foreign assistance agency, accountability is core to the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) organizational culture. This culture is reinforced by MCC’s evaluation leaders who oversee the agency’s performance, research, and evaluation activities. This commitment is further supported by the agency’s robust investment in research and evaluation: 2.3% of the agency’s budget, the highest relative spending on evaluation among the agencies featured in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence. This allows MCC to closely monitor the effectiveness of the projects it funds.

Beyond monitoring, MCC has increased its focus on sharing research and evaluation information with country partners, development assistance organizations, and the general public in recent years. This approach equips stakeholders to make better use of evidence-based approaches and accelerate results. Specifically, developed in FY20, MCC’s new Sector Packages provide a one-stop, interactive repository of sector-level common indicators, research questions, evaluation findings, and applied learnings. These Sector Packages complement the agency’s Evaluation Briefs, launched in FY19, which distill key findings and lessons learned from MCC’s independent evaluations. As of October 2020, MCC has published 76 Evaluation Briefs, which are also published in local country languages.

Finally, MCC is working to improve the Evaluation Catalog to seamlessly link evaluation, data, and access with better usability and findability features. The new MCC Evidence Platform will transform stakeholders’ ability to access and use MCC evaluation data and evidence.

Read more about the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has demonstrated a commitment to evidence-based grantmaking. For example, Mental Health Block Grant (MHBG) included a 10% set aside for evidence-based interventions to address the needs of individuals with early serious mental illness, including psychotic disorders. As a result, SAMHSA scores well in Results for America’s Federal Standard of Excellence criteria on use of evidence in non-competitive grant programs (criteria 9). Congress should continue to maintain this 10% set aside in future appropriations, even though the agency has requested a 50% reduction in this set aside for FY21.

In years prior to FY20, SAMHSA had a public-facing evaluation policy that governed research and evaluation activities across the agency. In FY20, it appears that SAMHSA has removed its Evaluation Policy and Procedure (P&P), which has publicly underpinned SAMHSA’s clear commitment to research and evaluation. Over the last several years, SAMHSA similarly rolled back various public evidence-based resources — like in FY18 when the agency suspended its evidence-based clearinghouse, the National Registry of Evidence-based Practices, which supported states and grantees in their selection and implementation of mental health and substance abuse evidence-based interventions.

Read more about the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the 2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence here.

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