Four Things to Know about Learning Agendas

Nov 16, 2018 by Kriti Ramakrishnan, Keith Fudge Comments (0)
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This blog was cross-posted from Urban Wire, The Voices of Urban Institute's Researchers and Staff.

Federal agencies are incorporating evidence in their daily operations and agency decisions. Provisions in the White House’s recent government reform plan and the president’s management agenda encourage the development of learning agendas to identify and prioritize evaluation and other research activities.

Learning agendas help agencies plan research and evaluation efforts and build a culture of evidence. They “allow agencies to think really critically about the programs and processes and the policies that they’re responsible for,” said Diana Epstein, evidence team lead at the Office of Management and Budget, at a recent Urban Institute event.

During that conversation, federal leaders discussed themes and considerations for developing learning agendas and encouraging the use of evidence within agencies. Here are four key take-aways.

1. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach”

Several agencies have already developed federal learning agendas and taken different approaches.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” said Epstein. “Learning agendas should be iterative, flexible, transparent, and most importantly, tailored to meet an individual agency’s needs.”

Differences in agency size, structure, and capacity mean approaches to learning agenda development and content will vary. While some agencies have public, agency-wide learning agendas, others are internal, focus on subagencies, or aren’t called “learning agendas.”

Melissa Patsalides, acting deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), said, “Because of our decentralized nature and our spread across sectors, we’ve had a number of learning agendas at USAID over the years” specific to particular programs or offices. Now, USAID is developing a more agency-wide learning agenda focused on a particular policy priority, the Journey to Self-Reliance, or how the agency supports its partners to eventually solve their own development challenges.

2. Learning agendas are integrated into agency functions

As learning agendas fit agency contexts, they should also fit within current agency activities and functions.

Pamela Patenaude, deputy secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, described the department’s “Research Roadmap” as a living document that adapts as the housing landscape shifts. The goals in the road map are tied to strategic and budget planning for the agency, ensuring research is central and relevant to other agency activities.

Learning agenda development may also be championed by offices that are not exclusively responsible for evaluation and research. At the Small Business Administration (SBA), learning agenda development lies with the Office of Performance Management.

Terell Lasane, lead program evaluator at SBA, said the agency “took advantage of that synergy with the performance management functions of our office when we were serving an evaluation function.” When asking program offices about performance management, they also asked about the knowledge gaps that informed the research questions in the learning agenda.

3. Stakeholder engagement is crucial

Learning agendas rely on input from many internal and external stakeholders to ensure the importance and relevance of the questions and research.

Lasane described SBA’s “learning agenda road shows,” where evaluation staff asked program staff what they would change about their program and what questions they would have to answer to make that improvement. Their responses helped inform the Enterprise Learning Agenda, empowering staff to help define the agency’s priorities and making them feel heard, rather than just viewing it as a directive.

Emily Schmitt, deputy director of the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), explained the importance of engaging internal and external stakeholders in order to ensure that ACF’s research and evaluation efforts and priorities are relevant to program and policy partners.

One approach ACF has taken is to convene experts in research, academia, and philanthropy to ask “where should [the agency] be headed, what’s going on [in the field] that we want to be sure not to duplicate, what can we complement, [and] are there gaps out there that the federal government is uniquely suited to fill?”

Agencies have leveraged internal and external input in many ways. Recent research provides a playbook for federal agencies, offering common themes and methods for stakeholder engagement, drawn from more than a dozen interviews with federal staff involved in learning agenda development.

4. Learning agendas increase evaluation capacity

Learning agendas provide a long-term strategy for thinking about the role of evidence within an agency and can spur improvements in evaluation capacity. Partnering with program offices, agency leadership, external researchers, and other stakeholders can build buy-in and prioritize research as an important agency function.

Learning agendas also bring people into the evidence space who otherwise may not be as engaged. Patsalides described the importance of including short-term questions that can be answered quickly to demonstrate the agenda’s usefulness.

“The process of developing the learning agenda can be as important as the document itself,” said Maia Jachimowicz, vice president for evidence-based policy implementation at Results for America. “This is not a compliance exercise; it should not be a compliance exercise. It’s really meant to bring meaning to all of our work and help build a culture of evidence.”

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