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Taking it Online: Towards Evaluating U.S. Policy on Women, Peace and Security

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

August 3, 2020 ~ Lost in the big shuffle of Presidential transitions, the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 (Public Law 115-68) had gained bi-partisan support and was finally signed into law on October 6, 2017. Congress codified into law an established U.S. policy priority to “promote the meaningful participation of women in all aspects of overseas conflict prevention, management, and resolution, and post-conflict relief and recovery efforts, reinforced through diplomatic efforts and programs…” To say this was long overdue is an understatement, particularly in the context of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325. This resolution formally recognized the critical role that gender awareness and equality plays in conflict resolution and peacebuilding and its adoption was generally considered groundbreaking in October 2000 – 20 years ago. In this month’s blog, I consider actions taken and yet to be taken towards evaluating U.S. policy on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) in the context of current times.

What purpose does evaluating policy and programs serve? See OMB guidance from March on Program Evaluation Standards and Best Practices. In short, it serves to help inform decision-making, for without appropriate reflection, resources go wasted in duplicative or unnecessary activities that yield little results and outcomes to justify taxpayer dollars. Policy evaluation, in my view, is the process of systematic collection and analysis of data and evidence across priorities and programs with the intent to understand what worked, what didn’t work and potentially how to improve upon what didn’t work. It is an iterative process that consists of such core elements as:

1. Planning and formulating relevant questions

2. Identifying appropriate sources of data/evidence

3. Developing a logic model or theory of change

4. Communicating findings and results

5. Informing policymaking process and programming

PL 115-68 mandated that the President submit a U.S. Strategy on WPS, which was released by the Trump Administration in June 2019. There are critics of this strategy to be sure and I note that the U.S. Strategy seemingly rejects the sense of Congress that “the United States should be a global leader in promoting the meaningful participation of women” with the assertion that the U.S. “maintains its role as a leader on the world stage.” This may explain why the strategy does not directly respond to Congress’ instruction to “support and alignment with plans developed by other countries.” On the other hand, Congress’ instruction to “include specific and measurable goals, benchmarks, performance metrics, timetables, and monitoring and evaluation plans to ensure the accountability and effectiveness of all policies and initiatives carried out under the strategy”was accounted for. These requirements make up the elements of a solid evaluation framework, from references to metrics and targets to theory of change. Additionally, the strategy attempts to define what is meant by “meaningful,” or “having a measurable, enduring impact on one or all of the identified strategic objectives, and in one or all phases of conflict or crisis prevention and resolution.” This is an important step in the right direction, but we must recognize that “enduring impact” and “one or all phases” assumes a commitment of time, and in many cases, a lengthy amount of time.

This strategy also responds to the Congress’ explicit naming of four executive agencies to implement the WPS Act: the Department of State and Agency for International Development as well as the Department of Defense and for the first time, calls for Homeland Security to play a key role in implementation. In June, these agencies released implementation plans for the period 2020-2023. There is an attempt at consistency across these plans that does give some coherence to what has potential to be a whole of government approach, but it’s clear we’re not there yet. Congress’ intent was for State and USAID to take the lead on implementation, but in close coordination with Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. As such, it is reasonable to expect that State and USID’s plans go further to identify interagency, foreign assistance and agency indicators on progress made towards established metrics and milestones. On a cursory review and assessment, these plans outline milestones and metrics for 3 out of 4 agencies. In a supporting role to State, USAID and Defense, the DHS Implementation Plan maybe the most realistic and focuses on establishing baseline data. This too is no small undertaking.

State’s WPS Implementation Plan is notably outcome-centered and output-based. It further defines “meaningful participation” to emphasize quality over quantity and seems to address Congress’ desire to “support and alignment with plans developed by other countries.” The plan ambitiously proposes to build an “infrastructure for coordination, reporting and learning” in the first year of implementation. Infrastructure could mean the expanse of information technology, human and financial resources. The Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) post, first introduced in 2009 by the previous Administration, will be instrumental as this office plays a key leadership role in coordination and execution with a stated emphasis on results-based design. It is assuring to see that State and USAID metrics fully align and, understandably, some of the indicators differ. While both have outlined new WPS-specific indicators, it is not so clear as to how outputs of what they do and who they reach will translate to outcomes that result in changes in knowledge, behavior or environment.

The USAID and Defense Implementation Plans appear to be strictly outputs-oriented; however, they each offer some value to the overall evaluation process. The USAID WPS Implementation Plan proposes an innovative approach to integrate Agency Performance Indicators, which should be encouraged on a wider scale. The Defense Implementation Plan proposes a useful logic model originating with foundational principles linked to the U.S. Strategy and finally to Departmental equities. 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. Ensuring validity and credibility of findings (Newcomer, 2017) will be an ongoing challenge.

I have briefly outlined further actions to be taken towards evaluating the U.S. policy for Women, Peace and Security. There is progress; however, much remains to be done, including an anticipated timeline for specific actions along lines of effort. Additionally, assigning agency evaluation officers-in-charge will help to legitimize the evaluation function in these agencies. As of this writing, State still has not assigned an evaluation officer. And finally, as this strategy is to be a whole-of-government approach, we should expect to see in the near future targets and metrics for the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs. Ultimately, how effective the United States is in implementing this policy will depend, in part, on her own credibility and record on the meaningful participation of women.

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