Editorial Comment: ECDG’s guest blogger, Rakesh Mohan, is director of the Office of Performance Evaluations, an independent and nonpartisan agency of the Idaho State Legislature. For its contributions toward improving state government policies and programs, the office received the Alva and Gunnar Myrdal Award from the American Evaluation Association (AEA) in 2011. Rakesh is a member of AEA’s Evaluation Policy Task Force and is currently running for president of the association.
Being the director of Idaho’s legislative evaluation office for more than 11 years has taught me many things. One of them is the complex nature of communication with policymakers. I believe this is probably one of the most important and challenging aspects of my job. Policymakers are busy folks with many competing things on their minds. Getting their attention isn’t easy. Having worked for them for so many years, I thought they knew about my office—like who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Not quite so.
First, let me tell you a bit about my office. My office operates under the general direction of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee—an eight-member, bipartisan committee that is equally divided between the two houses of the legislature and the two major political parties. The committee is co-chaired by a Republican and a Democrat; one of them is a senator and the other a representative. They alternate chairing the committee meetings.
The committee meets publicly 5 or 6 times a year to consider new assignments for us, hear our presentations on our independently completed evaluation projects, and release our evaluation reports to the public. In addition to these meetings, I keep legislative leadership, the joint budget committee, relevant policy committees, and individual legislators informed of our work.
I have done many things to connect with policymakers. Since joining the office as its director, I have focused on telling everyone about what we have done and the impact of our work, what we are doing, and what we can do. I have shared with them all the good news about the national recognition we continue to receive (awards, appointments, publications, and praises of our work in the news media). I have worked hard at helping policymakers with drafting their evaluation requests, answering their questions about a particular policy or program, and assisting them with drafting legislation to address our evaluation recommendations…
…but ignored one critical activity. While busy with showcasing our work and accomplishments and assisting policymakers with their questions, I made an assumption that policymakers knew about the nature of our work and the importance of how we do that work. I devoted very little time to explain this to policymakers. In retrospect, it has been a big mistake!
In spite of our numerous accomplishments and accolades, during the past six months, members of my oversight committee have raised some questions about our evaluation process and expressed an interest in changing certain aspects of the process. This came as a total surprise to me. I realized that we can’t just sit on our laurels and expect the busy policymakers to know the what, why, and how of the evaluation process and its relevance to the policymaking process.
Two weeks ago I did what I should have done 11 years ago. At a meeting of our oversight committee on July 14, I took the time to explain our evaluation process to the committee. I structured my comments in four categories:
Value. First I talked about our accomplishments in terms of value for scarce taxpayer dollars. I highlighted some of the key policy and program changes that were linked to our evaluation findings and recommendations over the past 11 years. I talked about how the implementations of our recommendations have saved tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Credibility. Next I told my committee that our office enjoys a high level of credibility within the state government, with the people of Idaho and the Idaho news media, and among colleagues in the field of evaluation. I provided many examples to illustrate what I meant by credibility:
- People trust the independence and nonpartisan nature of our work.
- The oversight committee and legislative leadership depend on us for providing honest answers to their tough questions without any personal or political agenda.
- The legislature, the governor, agency officials, and other stakeholders know that we do high quality evaluation work that is accurate, in-depth, and responsive to their information needs.
- We are transparent in the way we carry out our evaluation work.
- We treat all stakeholders with respect and we are sincere in our communications with them.
Framework. I explained to the committee that accomplishments, accolades, and resulting credibility did not happen by chance. There has been a systematic effort on our part to strive to get to where we are today. We have operated within a well thought out framework, which consists of state law, committee rules, evaluation standards and guidelines, and our own office policies and procedures.
I thanked my committee and legislative leadership for allowing us to work within this framework. As we know, in political environments, often there are temptations to deviate from the established framework to achieve short-term personal and political objectives.
Independence. Finally, and most importantly, I emphasized to my committee that the cornerstone of this framework is our independence in carrying out the evaluation work. I requested my committee members to keep independence in mind when proposing any changes to our evaluation process. Any impairment to that independence, even a perception of impairment, would be detrimental to the people’s confidence and trust in our office. After all, the mission of our office is to promote confidence and accountability in state government.
You can’t ever communicate too much. In this post I have shared with you my experiences and thoughts on working with public policymakers. Conducting evaluation in public policy environments is challenging but professionally rewarding. The rewarding aspect of our work greatly depends on our abilities to communicate with policymakers. I hope you find this post useful. Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.
[For details, please see my article titled Evaluator Advocacy: It Is All in a Day’s Work, American Journal of Evaluation, published online April 25, 2014.]