Strengthening Federal Evaluation: Meet in the Middle?
Greetings from the proverbial swamp. It’s July in Washington. I’m ruing the lack of seersucker in my wardrobe – longing for the ocean breezes of Miami Beach.
So how do I meet this digression? With some good ol’ Beltway insider habits.
First, I check to see if Congress has at least gone through the motions of pushing the 13 appropriations bills through committee. And the answer is yes. There’s even one bill that has been passed through both houses. (Energy and Water consolidated with Legislative Branch and Military Construction-Veterans). Considering how this year has been, it’s a nice surprise to see something that should be normal occur.
Second, time to check out the full version of “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century,” or the Trump Administration’s proposal to overhaul the Federal Government. You might have heard about this primarily through the proposal to merge the Departments of Education and Labor into the Department of Education and Workforce (DEW).
(Which leads to another tangent: Does anyone in the Administration drink Mountain Dew?)
But as I push through the document, I want to learn more about these proposals as a grants professional looking at the authorization needs for these changes (potentially in appropriations bills). And frankly as someone whose career was shaped by the formation of DHS, a merger of 22 agencies.
Then I happen upon the section, “Strengthening Federal Evaluation,” on page 118 of 132 in the PDF. Grants and policy gold.
In two-plus pages my hopes for good government soar. The use of evaluation to inform policy making is the ideal, and often the point of grants and their subsequent management. We want to fund effective programs that work and even try programs that fail. The first two pages of this section are a true call to “Meet me in the middle.”
A reach to the middle for a government designed to be inefficient? Tell me more!
And then I reach the top of the third page, and an emotional pop song comes into my head.
I see, “Establish and utilize multi-year learning agendas.” I hear in my head Maren Morris singing, “Meet Me in the Middle.”
The middle is hard because policy making is an emotional and often reactive process. And grants, which are policy tools, are often the instruments evaluated to inform policy, effectiveness, and compliance.
This section reads innocuously enough. Yet this proposal sets up a situation that what gets measured gets managed. And those who sets the measurements are a conduit of the President’s Agenda. Keep in mind that the President changes every four or eight years; the so-called learning agenda can change dramatically.
This is a challenge because sometimes it takes longer than eight years to find out if something really worked. To carry out this proposal, you have to protect the policy experiments getting measured. Which could mean asking an Administration doing something from a policy standpoint is abhorrent to their stated policy positions.
But what if you’re elected to do a 180 on a policy, even with data available? Do you have a temper tantrum about being dragged to the middle, using data to make decisions that contradict your policy position? And how does that trickle down to grantees who finally have a system to measure x, y, and z; but you think should be tracking a, b, and c? Do you disrupt the evaluation to make your point?
Meeting in the middle is so hard. Especially for grant professionals and constituents who really want and need to keep funding programs that make their communities work. What can you do while the people inside the Beltway figure things out?
- Accept that you need to learn the foundational basics (e.g., outputs and outcomes).
- Don’t lose sight of the story you want to tell with your grant funded project/program.
- Continue to track appropriations for Federal Fiscal Year 2019 not only for the status of your grant programs, but also for changes to support the reorganization proposals.
Because the middle, at least in principle, is a good place to meet.
Stay tuned for a piece on the proposals to move grant programs around.