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Program and Policy Evaluations in Practice: Highlights from the Federal Perspective

This paper explores ways to improve the value of policy and program evaluations from the perspectives of current and former government officials whose professional responsibilities lie at the intersection of producing and using evidence to inform federal policies and overseeing the practices of federally sponsored programs. Specifically, the evidence generated through evaluations can be very important in two policy domains: (1) responsible oversight of federal resources, policies, and programs, and (2) efficient allocation of scarce program dollars. The former has been advanced through the development and maintenance of evidence clearinghouses (e.g., the What Works Clearinghouse, the Clearinghouse for Labor Evaluation and Research, and and the latter is gaining traction through the movement toward evidence based policies for dissemination of public program funds, such as those operating through the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education.  The clearinghouses are critical to promoting efficient access to evidence, information about the credibility of the evidence, and information critical to judging its relevance to the current policy context.  Absent the clearinghouses, it would not be possible for government agencies to have made as much progress their reliance on evidence to guide policies and practices.  However, there is much room for continuing to improve the system.  For example, the field of program evaluation has matured tremendously in the United States in the past four decades. However, although the empirical superiority of experimental designs is well understood by most federal officials, we still need to more routinely design evaluations in ways that address issues of generalizability, without compromising the empirical rigor of impact evaluations. There also is an ongoing need to balance the empirical “rules” of experimental evaluations, particularly as related to long-term impacts, with the need of both policy makers and administrators for more timely evidence and the need of program operators to understand and translate evaluation findings to improve program service delivery and implementation.

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Citation: Maynard, Rebecca, Naomi Goldstein, and Demetra Smith Nightingale. (2016). “Program and Policy Evaluations in Practice: Highlights from the Federal Perspective.”  New Directions for Evaluation (L. Peck, Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley (pp. 109-134). DOI: 10.1002/ev.20209