Wednesday, February 14, 2024
Five years after Congress passed the Evidence-based Policymaking Act of 2019, or Evidence Act, decision-makers in federal departments and agencies are better positioned today to use their organization’s annual performance plan and multi-year strategic plan to inform future goal setting and resource allocation decisions.

Why? Because the Evidence Act requires agency leaders to develop annual evaluation plans and a multi-year evaluation plan, also referred to as a learning agenda, which should lead to better internal coordination and greater consideration of data and evidence in the strategic planning process. 

What is a learning agenda?

The learning agenda concept is grounded in notions of evaluative inquiry and organizational learning and organizational practice that set the stage for its more widespread adoption in the federal government.  Notably a learning agenda includes a list of priority research questions, with identified sources, methodologies and timelines, that align program evaluation and evidence-building activities to help inform the development and assessment of strategic goals and strategic objectives.

Departments and agencies have tailored their multi-year strategic and annual performance plans since President Obama’s second term to meet requirements in the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010, or Modernization Act. The implementation requirements are outlined in Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-11 guidance, which was updated in 2022 to meet Evidence Act requirements including the requirement for annual and multi-year evaluation plans.

How do strategic plans written under President Biden compare with previous administrations?  

We looked for critical plan elements in the strategic plans of 12 departments and agencies released under President Biden, and compared their presence to the strategic plans of the same departments and agencies written during the Trump administration. As in a previous study comparing strategic plans written under President Obama and President Trump, we found that departments and agencies continued to adhere to a rational plan design based on the 15 plan design criteria in OMB guidance.  Three critical plan elements, i.e., mission and values, broad goals and objectives, and implementation strategies and/or actions plans, were present in all of the strategic plans written under President Biden. However, fewer of the remaining 12 plan elements were consistently present when compared to the strategic plans written in the previous two administrations.

Were strategic goals and strategic objectives revised during the transition from President Trump to President Biden? 

We counted a total of 103 strategic goals and 351 strategic objectives across the 23 strategic plans released by the largest departments and agencies under President Biden. The totals are similar to the numbers in the strategic plans written under President Obama, and slightly higher than those written under President Trump.  In addition, we noted that during the transition from President Trump to President Biden that:

  • there was an increase in the number of strategic goals in six plans, including an increase by two goals or more in four plans, and a decrease by one strategic goal in two plans; and
  • 15 departments and agencies revised their strategic objectives, increasing in seven plans (including by nine new strategic objectives in one plan); and decreasing in eight strategic plans (including by five strategic objectives in one plan).  

How well do learning agendas link priority research questions to current strategic goals and strategic objectives?  

We found there were approximately 600 priority research questions in the 21 department and agency learning agendas released for the first time under President Biden.  More specifically, priority research questions:

  • were aligned with strategic goals in 16 of the 21 learning agendas. For the remaining five, questions were either not aligned, not listed, or described differently, i.e., as critical learning needs; and
  • were embedded in the narrative of strategic goals or strategic objectives in seven strategic plans, while they were listed in learning agendas that were linked from an appendix in five other strategic plans. Questions were not listed in the strategic plans of nine department and agencies.  

What is the outlook for increased use of evidence in strategic and performance plans?

According to OMB, evidence can be gathered through foundational fact finding, performance measurement, policy analysis, and program evaluation activities. While many departments and agencies had established activities beforehand, the Evidence Act requires agency officials responsible for research, statistical analyses, policy assessment, and program evaluation to heighten their efforts to coordinate internally in the strategic planning process. In addition, most departments and agencies have demonstrated an increased commitment to engaging both internal staff and interested stakeholders in the development of the priority research questions.

More recently, OMB challenged department and agency leaders to use evidence during strategic reviews and regular data driven reviews of the performance of major operating units.  Forward looking leaders should encourage periodic updates of multi-year strategic plans and learning agendas as relevant evidence becomes available, in addition to undertaking an annual review of progress against strategic goals and strategic objectives in performance and evaluation plans. 

The adoption of strategic and performance plans by departments and agencies based on the requirements in the Modernization Act is now widespread.  During successive annual planning cycles, answers to the priority research questions listed in a learning agenda can help leaders identify and close information gaps and gather evidence to better understand causal relationships between program inputs, activities, outcomes, and impacts during plan implementation.

Acceptance and use of an annual evaluation plan and learning agenda among the leaders of departments and agencies will vary as they strive to balance the tension between compliance with OMB guidance and internal structural barriers to better coordination or the external influence of stakeholders on intended program outcomes. While departments and agencies have taken the first steps to integrate learning agendas with strategic plans, it will take several planning cycles to understand if the Evidence Act has had its intended impact on strategic planning and decision-making.


This article is an updated version of an online presentation by J. Woody Stanley, Hannah S. Chandra, and Matthew Troy at the Marc Holzer GPRA Symposium on April 22, 2022.



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