After an exciting and productive conference at the American Evaluation Association (AEA), where the theme was “Speaking Truth to Power,” Nick Hart, Director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence Project, invited AEA members to speak at a public forum on November 8 on the Federal Data Strategy and its draft practices. Having just spent several days talking about how to communicate messages to those in power, here was an invitation to do just that—provide input into an important federal policy that influences not only our profession as evaluators, but also our lives as citizens.
Even though it is hard to take time out of our busy lives, as evaluators and as citizens, we have a responsibility to participate in these conversations. The Federal Data Strategy aims to enhance public trust in democratic processes by improving how the U.S. Government provides, maintains, and uses its data. I was pleased to find that the strategy echoes many AEA principles and values, with sections on data quality and use, promotion of an evaluation culture, stakeholder engagement, and partnership. It features a commitment to learning and efficient use of data, and emphasizes the need to build evaluation competencies for government employees, embed a learning agenda into evaluation, weave evaluation into planning, and use sound visualizations to share data with citizens.
The public forum was a perfect opportunity to translate our discussions at this year’s AEA conference into action by providing input on a federal strategy with the potential to affect our profession and our daily lives. Thirty-five of us arrived at the Bipartisan Policy Center on the morning of the forum, eager for a lively conversation. We each had 5 minutes to speak before opening the floor to questions. Some presenters promoted their organizations’ capability to mine big data sets and help large databases speak to each other; others spoke of specific applications of the strategy in their work. One insurance company representative talked about her organization’s use of client records to study the opioid crisis, and then had to respond to audience questions on data privacy.
I was the first speaker on the third panel, where Nick Hart was also speaking. I looked out into the audience of government representatives, students, Bipartisan Policy Center fellows, and the friendly face of a Graduate Education Diversity Intern I had just met. A handful of AEA members and staff were there, too. I began by emphasizing that independent third-party evaluators should play a role in data analysis to help uphold the public interest above special interests.
Then, I applauded the practices on embedding evaluation, building a learning culture, sharing findings with citizens, and engaging stakeholders. I put a plug in for AEA members; after all, we bring critical competencies to support learning and engagement, and the AEA has the potential to be a strong partner in clarifying and rolling out this agenda. When Nick Hart picked up these themes in his remarks, it was clear to me that he knew the strategy by heart (no pun intended). At the AEA, we are lucky to have Nick as our chair of the Evaluation Policy Task Force, a group tasked to support the AEA’s useful consultation to U.S. federal legislators and the executive branch and support the AEA’s public presence in important public conversations.
As I reflected on the forum, I asked myself, Did this conversation matter? My answer was a resounding yes. Organizations like the Bipartisan Policy Center are an essential part of our democracy. When we turn up for these discussions, we weave our future, speaker by speaker, word by word—paving the way for future conversations as we make connections for our profession and for AEA. This is an opportunity to stand for equity, gender and racial equality, inclusion, professionalism, ethical conduct, respect for people, systematic inquiry, and responsible service.
Federal Data Strategy Public Comment Period
The federal government is inviting public comments on the draft practices through November 18. The comments will be a reflection of our common values, and I hope each of you will take the time to contribute. To do so, visit https://strategy.data.gov/ and click the links to review and comment on the draft practices.
Tessie Tzavaras Catsambas is AEA’s President-Elect and will become AEA President in January 2019. EnCompass is grateful to Nick Hart and the Bipartisan Policy Center for this invitation to contribute.
Photo c/o Evaluation Headlines (@aeaweb). Pictured, from left: Tessie Tzavaras Catsambas, author; Lloyd Etheredge, Policy Sciences Center; Nick Hart, Bipartisan Policy Center; Sylvia Platre, Performance Quest, LLC; and George Wimberly, American Educational Research Association