Program Evaluation:

Agencies Challenged by New Demand for Information on Program Results

GGD-98-53: Published: Apr 24, 1998. Publicly Released: Apr 24, 1998.

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GAO reviewed federal agencies' efforts to provide information on federal program results, focusing on: (1) the current resources and roles for program evaluation in federal agencies; (2) the anticipated effects of governmentwide reforms and other initiatives on evaluation of federal programs; and (3) potential strategies for agencies to respond to the anticipated effects and provide information on program results.

GAO noted that: (1) existing federal evaluation resources--at least as currently configured and deployed--are likely to be challenged to meet increasing demands for program results information; (2) agencies reported devoting variable but relatively small amounts of resources to evaluating program results; (3) morever, agencies reported that the primary role of program evaluation was internally focused on program improvement, rather than direct congressional or other external oversight; (4) interest in the program by high-level officials was most often cited as a criterion for initiating evaluation work; a small portion of studies were said to be conducted for a congressional committee or in response to a legislative mandate; (5) some of the evaluation officials and experts that GAO interviewed anticipated not only increased interest in learning the results of federal programs and policies but also additional complications in obtaining that information; (6) some evaluation officials from states with performance measurement experience noted that effectiveness evaluations would continue to be needed to assess policy impact and address problems of special interest or larger policy issues, such as the need for any government intervention at all in an area; (7) to meet the anticipated increase in demand for program results information as well as the associated technical challenges, some evaluation officials GAO interviewed described efforts to leverage both federal and nonfederal resources; (8) however, some agencies anticipated that major investments in their data systems would be required to produce reliable data on program outcomes; and, in a prior study, program officials were concerned that reliance on less rigorous methods would not provide an accurate picture of program effectiveness; (9) moreover, while some federal evaluation officials envisioned providing increased technical assistance to state and local evaluators, a few state evaluation officials suggested an alternative strategy for the federal government; (10) GAO drew several conclusions from its comparison of current federal evaluation resources with the anticipated challenges to meeting increased demand for information on program results; (11) federal evaluation resources have important roles to play in responding to increased demand for information on program results, but--at least as currently configured and deployed--they are likely to be challenged to meet that demand; and (12) in the future, carefully targeting federal agencies' evaluation resources shows promise for addressing key questions about program results.

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