One of the most promising proposals in USAID’s transformation blueprint is the re-unification of its policy, budget and learning functions into the new Bureau of Policy, Resources and Performance (PRP), under the leadership of a new Associate Administrator. The goal of having budgets flow from development policy and program learning is one of the clearest signs that USAID career staff are influencing the transformation. It also recognizes that annual budget cycles and funding “burn rate” pressures too often override USAID’s own good instincts and best practices.
In 2016, USAID’s Policy, Planning and Learning Bureau (PPL) released a thorough updating of USAID’s internal guidance on the program cycle (ADS 201). As in the current transformation process, ADS 201 flowed from months of consultations with USAID leadership, career staff, Missions and the development community. On paper, it cascaded sustainability through local ownership to the Mission’s program strategies, program designs, activity designs and procurements. It provided Mission Directors and Program Managers with the mandate and tools to prioritize sustainable results.
Now, by combining this excellent existing policy framework with budget authority, metrics and learning, the new Associate Administrator and Bureau would be a powerful engine to bring these reforms to the fore among USAID’s decision-makers and within the inter-agency, a group of departments and agency leaders in foreign policy. As part of the elevation of development as a discipline, PRP would energize the feedback loop from evaluation results to improved program designs. This would build on years of USAID advances in evidence-based decision-making. For example, the Agency is increasingly recognizing the tremendous learning generated by ex-post evaluations, as suggested by the bi-partisan Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA).
The concept of ex-post evaluations is simple and powerful: to identify the programs that delivered lasting benefits. That means not only what were the results while millions in donor aid were being invested, but what were the results two, three or five years later? What factors drive sustainability of results? These questions are at the very center of development best practice and any journey to self-reliance. Since ex-post evaluations are conducted after programs have ended, they are usually funded through a central mechanism as part of a thematic review or strategy design process. In 2016, USAID’s Food for Peace Bureau published 12 ex-post program evaluations and a convincing statement about how those results informed their future program strategy and program designs.
Now, USAID’s Water Office is engaged in a similar effort to identify the factors that foster sustainability in their programs. When the six ex-post evaluations are complete, a synthesis report will draw the lessons for future water policy. The first two briefs demonstrate the rich learning generated by ex-post evaluations — one program’s results suffered a lot of slippage, while the other generally has prospered. Whether the goal is best practice, improved effectiveness, value for the taxpayer or journey to self-reliance, knowing whether the programs are outlasting USAID’s investments is critical information that ex-post evaluations are specially designed to provide.
Another excellent and overlooked effort by PPL is its recent literature review on “What difference does collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) make to development?” Let me cite just a few of their 12 lessons learned:
Facilitate development: “Locally led development has far-reaching implications for USAID staff and partners. It begins with adjusting our expectations about how quickly results can be achieved in order to allocate the time required to build relationships and facilitate local actors in defining their agenda … as emphasized in the updated ADS 201 guidance.”
Managing adaptively is more likely to improve outcomes “when decision-making autonomy is placed as close to frontline staff and local partners as possible.” This echoes findings from the broader public management literature that decentralized authority is associated with better performance. “In the development context, adaptation is more likely to occur on teams that keep organizational boundaries between implementing partners and donors permeable and have flexible and transparent contracting mechanisms.” It involves multiple “levers” of change, such as promotion systems, performance management, job design and recruitment. It also involves steady attention from senior agency leadership, which the new Associate Administrator would provide.
Powerful and actionable steps like these need to inform the priorities and operations of all of USAID’s Missions and Bureaus. They need to feed into program strategies and procurement processes so USAID can elevate its voice in the inter-agency and the effectiveness of its programs in the field. They cannot be allowed to sit in siloes or on shelves, largely relegated to passing mentions and benign neglect. By fusing the attention-getting power of senior leadership and budgets with the insights of policy and learning, the new Bureau of Policy, Resources and Performance has the potential to become USAID’s powerhouse for program effectiveness.
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