Opinion: Uniting policy, resources, and performance for better decision-making at USAID

A sign at the U.S. Agency for International Development headquarters in Washington, D.C. File photo

Plans for the transformation of the United States Agency for International Development have been approved by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and are now before Congress for review.

USAID Administrator Mark Green apparently saw an opportunity in President Donald Trump’s directive to agencies to reorganize for greater efficiency to make the USAID fit for the 21st century. Among the noteworthy aspects of the transformation proposal is joining the functions of policy, budget, and accountability — currently dispersed among five operating units — into a new, single Bureau for Policy, Resources, and Performance for greater coherence and to better reconcile competing budget and policy priorities.

The relationship of the three functions is clear. First, the old adage that policy should drive budget has operated mostly in reverse at USAID, with budget typically dictating, if not constraining, policy and program priorities. This dichotomy has been reinforced over several decades of policy and budget managed in separate offices.

Second, the foundation of good policy is knowledge of what works as revealed by monitoring, evaluation, and metrics. Bringing these together means that data, information, and learning can better inform policy — and sound policy can better justify budgets.

As reported to Congress, the three most significant objectives of consolidation are to align resources, promote a culture of learning, and project a unified voice. But each objective has serious hurdles to overcome.

Change in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s structure.

Objective 1: Align resources with policy priorities and evidenced-based country strategies

Colocation certainly would align resources with policy and strategy, and this alignment can produce better evidenced-based decisions and programming. Evidenced-based policy and policy-based budgeting would make USAID a more effective and respected agency.

The problem is how to create coherent policies and a policy-based budget given competing dynamics and centers of decision-making, within and outside the agency.

Internally, USAID is a collection of fiefdoms, divided between multiple offices and bureaus at headquarters in Washington, D.C., and between headquarters and the field — each protective of its own prerogatives. The best practice of local ownership means responding to priorities of aid recipients, as most closely represented in the strategies and programs of USAID missions, but the inclination at headquarters is for centralized control. Through the transformation process, Green wants to shift this balance back to the field. But tension will remain between global, cross-cutting initiatives and vertical field-based programming.

Externally, USAID is not able to independently decide its priorities and budget. Congress appropriates via earmarks and directives, the White House launches its own assistance initiatives, and the Department of State and National Security Council often override USAID with other funding priorities. To make matters worse, the agency now finds itself whipsawed by a White House that continues to propose deep cuts in the aid budget.

Abroad, as countries progress on the path to middle-income status, they are better positioned to set their own priorities, including how to use the assistance they receive.

While these forces sound overwhelming, the new PRP bureau brings together the elements that should allow the agency to put forth its strongest argument: budget priorities informed by data and evidence, the hands-on experience of its field staff, and headquarters expertise.

Objective 2: Promote a culture of learning, evidenced-based decision-making, and accountability

This goal too often receives mostly lip service. USAID lost much of its policy and evaluation functions in the early 2000s, but has made notable progress in resurrecting them over the past decade, strengthening its ability to set policies and strategies, monitor and evaluate, and use metrics.

If agency leadership is truly committed to this objective, it needs to allocate the necessary human and budgetary resources to the new bureau for developing policy and strategies and for evaluating programs. The last administration significantly increased the number and quality of evaluations, mainly at the field and activity level. This needs to be taken to the more strategic level of evaluations across programs and countries.

The hard part is translating the resulting data and information into knowledge that informs policy and programs. It means greater transparency in developing policies — on which USAID has made notable improvement — and sharing evaluations and data broadly. It means programmatic and personnel incentives on knowledge development and sharing. It means investing more in the professional development of staff. It means leadership that is willing to support the necessary incentives and budget and that demands policies based on best practice and evidence.

Objective 3: Project a unified agency voice with stakeholders

This goal recognizes the need for a single, senior-level official who can speak to the intersection of policy and budget, and advocate and articulate a coherent agency strategy. History recognizes the value of such a position. In the Carter and Reagan administrations, policy and budget were joined under the assistant administrator for program and policy coordination — a position with knowledge of both policy and budget issues to serve as the agency spokesperson inside the administration and on Capitol Hill.

This position represents the U.S. government with other donors and internationally, and works in collaboration with agency leadership and the interagency to ensure overall coherence and effectiveness of agency efforts. A glitch in the transformation plan is that the head of the bureau has the title of assistant to the administrator, not assistant administrator. While the difference in terminology would appear unimportant, it is significant.

An assistant administrator is a presidential appointment confirmed by the Senate, while an assistant to the administrator is not. This position should be one of the most important in the agency, setting agency policies and representing the agency — yet the position would lack the status so valuable in dealing with senior level counterparts. Congress should want a say in who holds this position.

Congress could increase the number of Senate-confirmed positions to designate this position as such. Alternatively, the designation could be moved from another slot, such as the senior management position, which is mostly inwardly focused, and so less in need of the status, or from the relatively small office of legislative and public affairs.  

The proposed structure is to be lauded, and these potential complications should contribute to the conversation on how they can be managed and how to encourage stakeholders to help overcome the hurdles. Congress should complete its due diligence and provide its input expeditiously so this commendable restructuring can move to implementation.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • George Ingram

    George Ingram is a co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and senior fellow at the Brookings Intuition.