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Discovering What Works is Critical, Says Zients

capital-buildingBefore former Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag stepped down from his post last Friday, he issued one last memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies. The memo outlined the process for conducting high-priority evaluations of government programs.

Until Jack Lew is confirmed, Acting Director Jeffry Zients will pick up the reigns. As Zients explains, determining which programs work and which do not is critical to discovering whether government operations are doing what they are supposed to do in a cost-efficient manner.

Evaluations of programs allow OMB to discern efficient and effective programs from those that poorly spend taxpayers’ money. The memo provides three continuing government-wide initiatives for the fiscal year of 2012.

“For an organization as large as the federal government, with as many priorities and obligations as it has,” Zients said, “the fact that we have rarely evaluated multiple approaches to the same problem makes it difficult to be confident that taxpayers’ dollars are being spent effectively and efficiently. Running rigorous evaluations takes money, but investments in rigorous evaluations are a drop in the bucket relative to the dollars at risk of being poorly spent when we fail to learn what works and what doesn’t.”

To ensure agencies are efficiently looking into the programs, the memo included a Budget Data Request to establish an online database where information “readily available online about all federal evaluations focused on program impacts that are planned, already underway, or recently completed,” as stated in the document.

It also includes the FY 2012 evaluation initiative, which is a voluntary evaluation initiative in which agencies will provide evidence of a thorough and rigorous program evaluation process in order to receive funding from OMB.

The third initiative included in Orszag’s memo is meant to improve and coordinate the use of existing evaluation resources: “This initiative focuses on impact evaluations, or evaluations aimed at determining the causal effects of programs or particular strategies, interventions, and within programs.”

The agency hopes to put an end to the government programs that have persisted year after year without adequate evidence that they work. Through these initiatives, OMB hopes evaluations will help policymakers and agency managers strengthen the design and operation of programs.

“Finding out if a program works is common sense, and the basis upon which we can decide which programs should continue and which need to be fixed or terminated,” Zients explained. “This guidance will help us do just that.”

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