Providing evidence for funding will challenge agency thinking

Meeting OMB's new directives will require careful attention to detail in providing evidence, experts say.

 Now that the Office of Management and Budget wants to see more use of analysis and evaluation in agency budget request -- evidence-based budgeting -- agency officials have to be diligent about gathering the evidence they offer in support of their programs, according to a veteran of the federal budget process.

OMB’s evidentiary demands force officials to look far into the future to determine a program’s costs and benefits—a feat that takes a lot of internal and at least some external reviews, said Ray Bjorklund, vice president and chief knowledge officer at Deltek.

If officials don’t give OMB a full picture, they can open themselves up to criticism about poor planning and suspicious evidence, he said.

The evidence requires a degree of intellectual honesty about the cost and benefits of a program. It also requires holistic thinking, he said. Officials should consider getting outside opinions to gather as much various input to develop evidence with as few holes as possible. Bjorklund suggested seeking the opinion of the agency’s inspector general or even a public consultant.

OMB issued two memos on May 18 outlining a new emphasis on evidence in budgeting. Agencies are to reduce their costs and support their requests with data that shows why the programs to be funded deserve to be. The evidence can determine what funding an agency may potentially receive.

“Where evidence is strong, we should act on it. Where evidence is suggestive, we should consider it. Where evidence is weak, we should build the knowledge to support better decisions in the future,” Jeffrey Zients, acting OMB director, wrote in the memo.

The memo invites agencies to propose new evaluations, adding some specific suggestions. Officials can consider low-cost evaluations using administrative data or new technology or systemic measurement of costs and cost per outcome. The overall goal of the OMB guidance is to create smaller budgets that justify their expenditures.

“These are important and noble goals, but at the same time, challenging,” Bjorklund said.

Kevin Plexico, vice president of federal information solutions at Deltek, said the overall guidance builds on what OMB issued last year. OMB told agencies to cut their budgets by 5 percent and then identify programs where they needed increases. But the additional detailed guidance on evidence-based budgeting is a new wrinkle.

He said it’s interesting that OMB is asking for data that’s specifically relevant to a given challenge, and that demonstrates a connection between the data provided and the outcome.

“That said, it’s hard to see it having a meaningful impact on the outcome given the political landscape we are in today,” he said.

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