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Taking it Online: Reflecting on Evidence to Inform the Present in Foreign Policymaking

January 4, 2021 ~ We made it to 2021! As we start the new year with hope, promise and celebration, let us also reflect on the past year, acknowledge the loss, hardships and yes, even failures, and move forward to learn from these valuable lessons. As students and as employees, we often start the academic or the performance year with goals and aspirations for the coming year, while also reflecting on what we have achieved, areas of growth and improvement and consider accompanying evidence. For public institutions and policies, it’s not nearly as simple; however, there are procedures and processes in which public institutions go about reviewing organizational performance and evaluating for outputs, effectiveness and impact, be it at the federal, state or local levels. Many experts predict and caution that 2021 will be another year of disruptions, uncertainty and instability, but there are still opportunities to make change for the better along the way, and I agree with them.


In my June blog, “Pivoting U.S. Foreign Policymaking”, I then raised a few questions that need to be considered and posited that to start answering those questions, leaders and decision-makers might rethink the Who, What, Where, When, Why and ultimately How. Last month, I wrote about the Who. In this month’s blog, I expand on the What as the primary issues and challenges of our time have become less visible, multi-dimensional and extremely complex. I have mentioned previously that we’ve moved well beyond defense and physical security to cyber, climate and health security. Global crises, real and perceived, have shifted, from tangible to intangible factors. As we work to build more equitable and inclusive societies and to rebuild, what issues should the United States pivot to and prioritize first? It seems obvious and a no-brainer that priorities should be determined where the evidence is strongest and most compelling and not determined by policies and priorities set by impulse or personality. If information is power, U.S. foreign policymaking needs to pivot to act on these types of issues.


What steps can be taken to pivot U.S. foreign policymaking within the next three months? It is very clear that there is much work ahead for public institutions under the Biden Administration. The recently released December 30, 2020 Report on Foreign Assistance Tracking Capabilities is an example of the challenges of accurately capturing information and evidence that is useful and, in this case, tracking U.S. foreign assistance. In the report, the OIG assessed that “the Department’s proposed approach to addressing deficiencies in foreign assistance tracking would not produce the full range of data needed by senior policymakers, bureaus that manage foreign assistance, or external audiences.” Some of the issues that make this tracking so difficult stem from translatability and commensurability challenges. There is always a need for information and evidence to be integrated in ways in which policymakers and decisionmakers as well as the public can make sense out of it. I am hopeful that some of these issues to be addressed with the newly created position of Chief Data Officer required under the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 to name a non-political senior government official by August 2019. At the end of 2020, the Department of State finally named its first Chief Data Officer. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), on the other hand, has had a CDO in place since July 2014. Certainly, having people named to such senior positions does not automatically make for success, but it does help to have some resources and authority attached to the position.


The concept of using evidence to base and inform policymaking has been around for some time; however, the 2019 GAO Report on Evidence-Based Policymaking recognized a fragmentation in government agency approaches to collecting and analyzing different types of evidence and data, and not limited to programmatic information, to inform policymaking. And using evidence has not been limited to federal policies and programs. The Council of State Governments (CSG) 2020 National Conference held virtually in late October through mid-December of 2020, included a panel on State Approaches to Evidence-Based Policymaking that presented examples of state and local uses of evidence-based policymaking that could be very relevant to foreign policymaking as U.S. states and cities play an increasing role in this arena.


I also see hope and promise through opportunities for private individuals, corporations and non-governmental organizations, to contribute to the culture of evidence-based policymaking, in responding to the U.S. Federal Register, Request for Comments for the Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building by February 9. We can all play a role in contributing to the creation of a culture of evidence-based decision-making to pivot U.S. foreign policymaking to one that is based on sound data, information and evidence. As many struggle the world over to make ends meet, it’s not a sign of weakness, but a position of strength, to aim for actions that are practical, realistic and meaningful. If we can start the year off in a more humble posture for our own individual benefit, we can and must do so for the benefit of our communities and countries across the globe. There are many, many ways to rebuild and these are just a few ideas that I hope will generate dialogue, but more importantly, spur action within the next few months.


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