The words “OMB” and “exciting” rarely go in the same sentence, much less “OMB” and “OMG!” Yet on May 18, Jeffrey Zients, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), sent out a memo that could change history. In guidance to executive departments and agencies, the memo asks the entire Executive Branch to use every available means to promote the use of rigorous evidence in decision-making, program administration, and planning. Some of the specific strategies urged by OMB were as follows:
• Low-cost evaluations, using routinely collected data. For example, when grants are made to schools to use particular programs, districts could be asked to submit schools in pairs, knowing that one in each pair will be assigned at random to use the program and one to wait. Then routinely collected test scores could be used in the evaluations, to compare experimental and control groups. Such studies could be done for peanuts, greatly expanding the evidence base for all sorts of programs.
• Evaluations linked to waivers. Existing rules often inhibit experimentation with practices or policies that might be used in the future. Agencies can waive those rules specifically for the purpose of testing innovations.
• Expanding evaluation efforts within existing programs. Imagine, for example, encouraging systematic variations in uses of Title I funding to determine better ways to help Title I children succeed.
• Systemic measurement of costs and cost per outcome. If there are more cost-effective ways to achieve better outcomes, we should be finding them, and then allocating resources accordingly.
• Infusing evidence into grant-making. Agencies can increase the use of evidence-based practices in all sorts of grants. In competitive grants, applicants could be offered a few competitive preference points if they propose to implement programs with strong evidence of effectiveness. Investing in Innovation (i3), of course, provides different levels of grants depending on the existing evidence base for promising innovations.
There is much more in this far-reaching memo, but these are the elements most relevant to education.
I have no idea how the memo will play out in practice, but at a minimum it provides clear and detailed guidance to all federal agencies: show us the evidence. More importantly, show the American people your evidence. It says that government is not about who gets what, it is about conscious and informed stewardship of public funds to produce valued outcomes.
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