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LEARN > Blogs > Embracing Learning Agendas for Government

Embracing Learning Agendas for Government

21 Jun 2024
Written by Nick Hart
Blogs

At the heart of effective policymaking is a simple approach we can all apply daily: asking questions. Learning agendas, or evidence-building plans, are intended to be a tool that supports ensuring we routinely and transparently ask questions that matter for developing policies in the United States. Required by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (Evidence Act), learning agendas are basically strategic plans for evidence-building activities that help federal agencies identify and prioritize the critical questions they need to answer – or begin to answer – in order to improve policies and programs.

A June 2024 report from the Data Foundation analyzed the learning agendas of 23 federal agencies, demonstrating how clearly these plans are becoming roadmaps for evidence-informed decision making across the national government. By framing key questions upfront, agencies can more effectively guide their research and evaluation efforts, ensuring that they are collecting necessary data and generating actionable insights when conducting analysis.

Learning agendas are far more than just a list of questions in isolation. The agendas can also outline plans for data collection and analysis, setting agencies up for success in answering those questions by ensuring potential partners and collaborators know about agency interest. Activities and topics may include identifying relevant data sources, developing data sharing agreements, articulating evaluative needs, and investing in the infrastructure and expertise to support robust analytics and evaluations.

Ultimately, the goal of developing and using a learning agenda is to help agencies and the public to have information for decision-making, and throughout that endeavor we will learn about programs and policies. When the learning agendas are used, its inevitable agencies and the public will also learn more about what's working, when, and where, as well as how policies can be improved upon. All this effort starts by asking questions and identifying key learning needs. 

Here are several examples:

  • Labor Department (DOL). In the DOL’s 47-page learning agenda, the Department identified a key learning area around equity in the employment and training programs. DOL then articulated a project focus for disability and employment programs and asked two key learning questions to seek additional data, research, and evaluation: What are racial and ethnic differences in employment, earnings, program participation, and program outcomes for people with disabilities? What are current research gaps related to how disability employment programs serve individuals from different racial and ethnic groups, and what are promising practices to address existing inequities? Of the 58 priority questions included in DOL’s agenda, 31 are focused on this topical area of equitable program implementation.
     
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA’s 23-page learning agenda identifies a range of topics that align with the agency's strategic plan. The EPA agenda includes 15 questions overall, including 5 on public health and 5 on natural resources, among other topics. There are four overall topics in the agenda – one of which emphasizes whether grant commitments are met. With multiple priority questions underneath this topic, a key question is: Are the commitments established in EPA’s grant agreements achieving the intended environmental and/or human health results, particularly for environmental justice and underserved communities? The Labor Department and EPA examples demonstrate the real-world potential of learning agendas. By providing a structured framework for asking questions that encourages collecting data and evaluating impact, learning agendas help agencies stay focused on what matters most: fulfilling their missions to ensure they effectively deliver results for the American people.

As the Data Foundation’s June 2024 report on learning agendas highlights, federal agencies have made significant progress in developing and using learning agendas, but there is still much work to be done. What’s next for learning agendas in the U.S.? They must be used to achieve intended levels of usefulness. All the questions from the learning agendas can be explored through a dashboard available at Evaluation.gov. 

Learning agendas appear to offer a promising path forward for building and using evidence productively – a way to catalyze agencies and their partners to identify and use data and evaluation for solving real problems, improving lives, and building or restoring trust in government. The next question is – which learning agendas will you delve into to help address priorities in partnership with an agency? 

Read the full report from the Data Foundation. 

Explore the Learning Agenda Question Dashboard. 

NICK HART is President & CEO of the Data Foundation, and a co-author of Blueprints for Learning: A Synthesis of Federal Evidence-Building Plans. 

Note: This blog post was created with the assistance of an AI tool. The AI did not independently write or publish this post. The author takes full responsibility for reviewing, editing, and approving the final content

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