2022 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence — Agency Snapshots: How Federal Agencies Are Building and Using Evidence to Make Even Faster Progress
By Results for America
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 agendas. 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 2022 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence, the nine leading federal agencies and departments include:
- Millennium Challenge Corporation (Gold)
- U.S. Department of Education (Gold)
- U.S. Agency for International Development (Gold)
- AmeriCorps (Silver)
- U.S. Department of Labor (Silver)
- Administration for Children and Families (within HHS) (Silver)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (within HHS) (Silver)
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (Silver)
- Administration for Community Living (within HHS) (Bronze)
To learn more about how these agencies and departments continue to lead in federal evidence-based policy, visit the 2022 Federal Standard of Excellence here. More information on the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act is available via Results for America’s Evidence Act Resource Hub and Evaluation.Gov. Further information about executive orders and memorandum on using data and evidence to advance equity in government is available here.
Millennium Challenge Corporation
As a foreign assistance agency, accountability is core to Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC’s) 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: 1.5% of the agency’s budget or $12,200,000 in FY22.
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, in 2022, MCC launched its MCC Evidence Platform, a one-stop, analysis and virtual data enclave for users to access and use public and restricted use data. The platform encourages research, learning, and reproducibility and connects datasets to analytical products across the portfolio.
The MCC Evidence Platform hosts evidence briefs, studies, reports, and data that are searchable based upon region, sector, program status, evaluation type and more. As of October 2022, it includes 192 studies, 457 analysis reports, and 146 data packages across 35 countries.
The agency is working to strengthen its evidence frameworks for research and evaluation, especially in key priority areas of climate, inclusion, and gender. In 2022, MCC further developed new Sector Results and Learning pages to connect critical sector-level learning with agency priorities and programs. Its robust use of external independent evaluators helps bolster and improve performance management and improvement.
MCC can improve its practice by releasing an agency-wide, public learning agenda. Further, MCC should develop and use a common evidence framework to inform its research.
U.S. Department of Education
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has been a longtime leader in evidence-based policy, using information about what works to drive decision-making. This work is critically important as ED partners with stakeholders across the nation to help students recover from the impact of the pandemic. In addition, this year — 2022 — marks a special milestone in the Department’s journey to build and use rigorous evidence in service of better policymaking and improved outcomes for all learners: it is the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002, which founded the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Collaboration between IES and other key offices across the Department, including the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development’s Grants Policy Office and Office of the Chief Data Officer, has been critical in supporting the Department’s implementation of the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act).
ED has published an Annual Evaluation Plan for FY23 and released its Learning Agenda in July 2022. The 2022 Learning Agenda includes six focus areas that align with the agency’s strategic plan: address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, educators, and faculty; promote equity in student access to educational resources, opportunities, and inclusive environments; support a diverse and talented educator workforce; increase postsecondary value; and effectively manage federal student aid programs.
Beyond Evidence Act implementation, ED’s Evidence Leadership Group helps program staff to use evidence in grantmaking in programs across the agency, including support of the Department’s legislation: the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). A key driver of increased evidence use in states across the country, the department’s five largest grant programs require some form of an evaluation report on a yearly basis to build evidence, demonstrate performance improvement, and account for the utilization of funds. Its 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. The department also provides robust technical assistance through the Regional Education Laboratories and Comprehensive Centers, which help states and districts build and use evidence.
The Department of Education is focused on efforts to disaggregate outcomes by race and other demographics and to communicate those results to internal and external stakeholders. For example, to facilitate clear and open reporting on the implementation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, ED’s Office of the Chief Data Officer maintains the Education Stabilization Fund (ESF) Transparency Portal, allowing ED to track performance, hold grantees accountable, and provide transparency to taxpayers and oversight bodies. In future years, the portal will include other disaggregated student data such as the number of students who participated in various activities to support learning recovery or acceleration for subpopulations disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the coming year, to advance its use of evidence and data, the Department of Education should invest at least 1% of program funds in evaluations. Additionally, the department should proceed with its Evidence Act and OPEN Data Government Act implementation, based on forthcoming White House Office of Management and Budget guidance.
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 competitions. To date, this initiative has funded $154,000,000 in grants, prize awards, and technical assistance for 587 innovations in 107 countries. More than $1,000,000,000 in follow-on funding has been generated from external sources as a result of these innovative investments. A similar program, Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), uses rigorous evidence of impact and cost effectiveness to fund and scale innovative solutions. Since 2010, DIV has invested $172,000,000 in 255 innovations across 47 countries, benefitting over 99,000,000 people globally.
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 among its chief data officer, chief evaluation officer, statistical officer, and the leaders of the Office of Learning, Evaluation and Research (OLER). 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. For example, in FY22, the USAID Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL) developed a new agency learning agenda that incorporated priorities from the Biden administration. Furthermore, in October 2021, the agency’s chief scientist was appointed as USAID’s scientific integrity official, consistent with the Presidential Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. In March 2022, USAID published its Annual Evaluation Plan for FY23 on the agency’s Development Experience Clearinghouse (DEC), which is the repository for disseminating evaluation, research, and other evidence publicly. The Annual Evaluation Plan includes significant evaluations aligned with the agency’s learning priorities from the learning agenda.
Beyond evaluation, USAID has a sophisticated approach to collecting and leveraging disaggregated data. While LGBTQ+ data may be politically complicated or potentially unsafe to collect in certain country contexts, USAID data can be disaggregated by geographic location, region, or state, which can be mapped with other demographic data to build a picture of disparities where data gaps exist. Country expertise can then be applied to analyze racial and ethnic equity dimensions. Taken together, all of these capacities, tools, and structures help USAID continue to leverage evidence to build knowledge and drive results-oriented investments.
In the coming year, to advance the quality of its evaluations, USAID should finalize public and stakeholder input and implement its draft common evidence framework. Further, the agency should increase its use of evidence of effectiveness when allocating funds from its competitive grant programs.
Over the past several years, AmeriCorps has been the federal government’s leader in using evidence to invest federal grant funds. In FY22, 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.
This milestone is a result of the agency’s approach to grantmaking that gives preference to grantees that propose evidence-based programs. In 2021, the agency also released a toolkit to help grantees prepare to scale effective evidence-based interventions, determine if interventions are ready for scaling, and ensure that scaled interventions produce meaningful outcomes. Through this toolkit, the agency is supporting the field in embracing evidence-based practices and building robust evidence while also building their capacity to compete in the evidence-based market. In 2022, AmeriCorps collaborated with the Department of Education to share this resource with its stakeholders, collaborated with ServeMN and Ampact to train its directors in using it, and invested in training and technical assistance to facilitate its use by grantees.
Results for America’s 2022 State Standard of Excellence showed that federal programs that prioritize evidence of effectiveness are influencing the way that states are allocating the federal resources within their state. For example, AmeriCorps State and National administered 27 programs in 27 states that also prioritize evidence-based interventions. Details on the state programs are available here.
In 2022, AmeriCorps increased its evaluation and research score. The agency released an updated learning agenda that included an expanding stakeholder engagement process for garnering feedback. Feedback methods included listening sessions, calls with state commissions, engagement with internal stakeholders (e.g., staff working with grantees), and regular meetings with agency leadership on the learning plan.
The Office of Research and Evaluation (ORE) provides critical support in increasing the agency’s evidence-based investments. It 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, ORE also continued to build the overall capacity of the agency by developing key resources such as the Strategic Evidence Plan and Evidence Exchange. The agency’s learning officer and other colleagues in the office led the development of a concept paper for a national service equity, evidence, and innovation fund to guide the use of data and evidence to advance equity. Finally, although it is a non-CFO Act agency, AmeriCorps hired its first chief data officer to support the Evidence Act and enhance agency-wide data practices and policies.
To advance the agency’s investments in evidence-based policymaking, AmeriCorps should address its need for an updated and comprehensive suite of data practices, policies, and processes that allow it to strategically leverage and incorporate national datasets into decision-making processes.
U.S. Department of Labor
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) was one of the first agencies to create the position of 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. The department’s Evaluation Policy was also a model for federal guidance for agencies. Several examples of long-standing federal leadership are demonstrated by DOL’s Clearinghouse for Labor Evaluation and Research (CLEAR), a model federal evidence clearinghouse 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 by formalizing evidence leadership across the department, including the roles of the statistical official, evaluation officer, and chief data officer, who leads the department’s Data Board. The department publicly shared this information on its new website.
As an important result of the Evidence Act, evidence-building activities led by the Chief Evaluation Office were coordinated with performance management activities led by the Performance Management Center. The aligned FY22–26 Strategic Plan and Evidence Building Plan is available on the department’s website. Performance improvements include updates to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) that allow state and local governments to build their own performance infrastructure by using federal funds for data collection, performance management, research, and evaluation activities. This act encourages state and local governments to link funding to performance and evaluation data through performance-based grants and contracts.
Additionally, DOL invests in evidence-based grantees through three competitive grant programs: the Senior Community Service Employment Program, the National Farmworker Jobs Program, and the national YouthBuild program. Additional grant programs that incorporate criteria such as prior performance are Reentry Employment Opportunities, H1-B, and apprenticeship grant programs.
To advance its efforts, the Department of Labor should invest at least 1% of program funds in evaluations. In addition, the department should increase the use of evidence of effectiveness when allocating funds from its competitive grant programs.
Administration for Children and Families
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 (HHS) invested in a robust approach to infuse data and evidence in budget, policy, and management decisions. The Administration for Children and Families was among the first federal agencies to publicly release an agency-wide evaluation framework with its FY12 policy “to govern [the agency’s] planning, conduct, and use of evaluation.” The agency’s deputy assistant secretary for planning, research, and evaluation leads the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) and oversees a 70-member evaluation team. In FY22, ACF had a total research and evaluation budget of $156,000,000.
Its long-standing expertise in research and evaluation helps ACF provide support to grantees on evaluation, evidence building, data-driven innovation, and implementation of evidence-based programs. In 2022, ACF advanced its work in the area of performance management, naming five strategic goals, each with corresponding pilot programs that also have implementation and tracking measures.
The agency continues to grow its efforts to support equitable and culturally responsive evaluation. Two examples of FY22 initiatives are Advancing Contextual Analysis and Methods of Participant Engagement, which will help advance equitable research, and the Race Equity for Fatherhood, Relationship, and Marriage Programs to Empower Black Families project, which will specifically focus on the needs and experiences of Black fathers, families, couples, and youth served by Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood programs. Similarly, the African American Child and Family Research Center leads and supports research on the needs of African American populations served by ACF.
For FY23, the HHS annual evaluation plan names five priority areas: health care, public health, human services, research and evidence, and management. ACF is contributing to both human services and research and evidence. Two featured ACF projects will contribute to these areas: Building Evidence on Employment Strategies for Low-Income Families, and Supporting Evidence Building in Child Welfare. The Administration for Children and Families will also support the HHS evaluation plan’s salient focus on health equity by, for example, evaluating maternal and child health programs. In addition, ACF, in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), will be making available to researchers de-identified state-level datasets for two states that link the Medicaid records of parents with the records of their children from the child welfare system. These data can be used to support research in the health care, public health, and human services priorities areas, for example by examining outcomes for families that may have substance use disorders, like opioid use disorder.
Another area of growth for ACF was in data collection and management. Building on its 2021 Confidentiality Toolkit, OPRE released a Case Study Report in May 2022, the first in a planned series of publications. The Case Study Reports focus on the privacy and confidentiality challenges that states and localities face (and how they can be overcome) and provide model tools and resources (e.g., data sharing agreements) in downloadable and editable formats.
To advance the agency’s investments in evidence-based policymaking, ACF should invest at least 1% of program funds in evaluations and increase the use of evidence of effectiveness when allocating funds from its competitive grant programs.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has demonstrated a commitment to evidence-based grantmaking as well as to connecting diverse populations to needed resources and services. In FY21, the agency actively participated in the Federal Standard of Excellence for the first time since FY19. In FY22, SAMHSA continues to build on its Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act implementation, including hiring a chief data officer, developing a SAMHSA-wide Evidence and Evaluation Board, developing and sharing an Evaluation Policies and Procedures document, and drafting a FY23 Evaluation Plan (SAMHSA Ongoing and Planned Evaluations for Fiscal Year 2023). The agency reported spending 2.01% of its FY22 agency budget on research, evaluation, and evaluation-related activities, among the highest percentages of the nine participating agencies.
Beyond these core evaluation activities, SAMHSA has developed guidance for its competitive grants that promotes the use and development of evidence-based practices. Developing a Competitive SAMHSA Grant Application provides information for applicants to prepare competitive well-developed applications. All the agency’s competitive grants require grantees to describe their evidence-based practices (EBPs). Similarly, the SAMHSA Community Mental Health Block Grant (MHBG), a noncompetitive formula grant, maintains a 10% set-aside for evidence-based interventions to address the needs of individuals with early serious mental illness, including psychotic disorders. The Substance Abuse and Prevention Block Grant (SABG) includes a 20% set-aside for primary prevention and a 5% set-aside for early intervention services for HIV for designated states. SAMHSA also encourages states to use the SABG funds to implement evidence-based practices in substance use treatment.
In 2022, the Office of Behavioral Health Equity engaged in a rigorous cross-center process to update its Disparity Impact Statement (DIS) to make this statement more user friendly and more relevant to addressing health disparities. The DIS ensures that SAMHSA programs are inclusive of underserved under-resourced populations (including race, ethnicity, and LGBTQ status) in their service, infrastructure, prevention, and training grants. The DIS framework is based on the principles of access (subpopulations being served), use (types of services provided to each subpopulation), and outcomes (specified program outcome variations by subpopulation). The Office of Behavioral Health Equity is poised to support the agency in advancing its equity agenda aligned with a focus on evidence, research, and evaluation.
In FY22, SAMHSA engaged in innovative programs to advance its mission including the Recovery Innovation Challenge. This competition seeks to identify innovative practices in behavioral health that advance recovery. This innovation challenge will support the Office of Recovery to advance the agency’s commitment to support recovery for all Americans.
To build on its rapid progress, SAMHSA should increase its use of evidence of effectiveness to allocate competitive and noncompetitive grant funds and finalize its public facing strategic data plan.
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. With the Evidence Act in place, HUD has issued an updated Research Roadmap, informed by an exemplary stakeholder engagement process that it has developed over the years to identify key research questions from the field. In addition to its robust research and evaluation portfolio, HUD remains a leader in federal performance management systems.For example, in FY21, the agency engaged its chief financial officer in performance monitoring. The department has made strides in leveraging administrative data in a complementary relationship with evidence building and program demonstration. Additionally, it has increased its emphasis on generating interim reports during long-term impact evaluations.
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. Across its multiple programs, HUD incorporates community capacity-building elements to ensure successful program implementation. The department’s Community Compass is an initiative that integrates technical assistance from across various HUD programs. In FY22, HUD funded $33,000,000 for the department-wide technical assistance programs, and it looks forward to expanding the support further. The department’s Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG) represents how community development programs comprise flexibility based on each community’s need, the collaboration of extensive public and private sector partnerships, and community empowerment supported by HUD’s technical assistance. In FY22, HUD offered $3,450,000,000 for the CDBG, in which funding for housing, community and economic development, and disaster recovery is designed to also build fiscal health and administrative capacity, such as capacity for data collection, analysis, and outcome tracking. The 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.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has exemplary equity practices. For example, the department publishes foundational research to promote more equitable community development and housing policy via the HUD USER platform on issues such as housing discrimination and programs that increase economic opportunity for disadvantaged and underserved populations. Key findings of evaluations are disaggregated by effect size, population, and subgroup demographics. Additionally, as a part of its COVID-19 response, HUD published a suite of racial equity housing resources, toolkits, and research to reduce overrepresentation of people of color experiencing homelessness.
To improve its evidence building and knowledge about effective housing programs, HUD and Congress should provide clear guidance for states and localities about leveraging the CDBG 20% set aside for evaluations, research, evidence building, and data activities, as described above.
Administration for Community Living
The Administration for Community Living (ACL), an operating division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), first participated in the 2018 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence, and has since accelerated its efforts to build an organizational culture focused on performance and research.
The administration’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. In 2021, OPE gained more staff and capacity to support learning and research. As part of its growing efforts to increase the agency’s evidenced-based policy capacity, OPE provides staff training on evidence-based grant making, 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. The agency made major strides in meeting the requirements of the Evidence Act by issuing a FY23 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). The agency is also using National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Healthcare to inform its evaluation framework. 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.
These efforts to build evidence are also supported through ACL’s grants. The agency supports evidence building activities through non-competitive grants, which aim to gather and report best practices in the Caregiver Support Services program; improve service delivery through the State Councils on Developmental Disabilities’ planning processes; and adapt and scale evidence-based programs for children and older adults with disabilities through the RESILIENCE Rehabilitation Research and Training Center. During the pandemic, the agency’s focus and emphasis on learning was applied to the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), which produced research on the access challenges that wearing face coverings can cause for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as recommendations to better support those with hearing impairments.
In future years ACL should invest at least 1% of program funds in evaluations and continue to increase the use of evidence of effectiveness when allocating funds from competitive and noncompetitive grant awards.