Leveraging learning agendas to catalyze policy relevant research: Three takeaways from federal and local approaches

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When constructed in coordination with key stakeholders, learning agendas can provide researchers and policymakers with a roadmap to highlight where strategic investments in additional research can be most helpful. This August, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) previewed the roll out of a government-wide learning agenda to bring together vital questions raised across government agencies, from the Social Security Administration to the United States Postal Service. On the precipice of this exciting initiative, we reflect on the critical role that learning agendas can play in driving policy relevant research and the need for such agendas to catalyze coordinated innovation within and across all levels of government.
OMB’s government-wide learning agenda aims to partner researchers with policymakers across agencies, sectors, and geographies to build evidence to address pressing challenges. These exciting partnerships can catalyze innovation in thinking about evidence and implementation needs. Importantly, the collaborative nature of these partnerships can bridge silos, ensuring that evidence-building cuts across the needs of myriad stakeholders. 
J-PAL North America’s State and Local Innovation Initiative is similarly seeking to mobilize state and local governments’ expertise to inform an evidence-based policymaking process. One of the ways our Initiative aims to achieve this goal is by developing a State and Local Learning Agenda, which details key research and policy priorities shared by both state and local governments and J-PAL affiliated researchers. 
Drawing on OMB’s insights, we highlight three key takeaways from our own experiences with the State and Local Innovation Initiative on the key role learning agendas play in generating policy relevant evidence: 

  1. Learning agendas reinforce a focus on innovation and learning, helping policymakers understand how and why certain policies and programs work. The State and Local Learning Agenda highlights the important role evaluations play in helping local policymakers understand the nuances of how their policies and programs can best help communities. For example, many students in under-resourced communities enter high school several years behind grade level and struggle to catch up, putting them at risk of dropping out. Two randomized evaluations, highlighted in the learning agenda, focused on understanding how tutoring can mitigate this learning gap. They found that students who received individualized tutoring implemented by Saga Education scored higher on exams, earned better grades, and were more likely to pass their classes. Saga Education has built on the results of these studies, expanding its reach to 12,000 students within the program’s first five years alone. Moreover, the results from a tutoring evidence review demonstrate how and why tutoring programs can best help students. Such findings have proven indispensable over the past 20 months, as education practitioners and policymakers strive to mitigate Covid-19 learning loss. 
  2. Learning agendas bridge silos. Learning agendas bring together various perspectives on how to address key policy challenges, coordinating learning across geographies, sectors, and agencies. For example, state agencies are looking to evidence-based practices to respond to crime and violence (p. 41 in the State and Local Learning Agenda). While many communities are facing similar challenges, solutions will look different across states and cities. Collecting data and running evaluations can help inform how communities learn from each other while adapting interventions for each unique context. 
  3. Learning agendas catalyze innovation on priority questions. Understanding issues faced across agencies and geographies can inspire policymakers and researchers to come up with innovative solutions to cross-cutting challenges. The Creating Moves to Opportunity (CMTO) project is an example of the kind of innovation that can occur when researchers and practitioners come together. CMTO is a collaboration between J-PAL affiliated researchers and public housing authorities across the nation to evaluate interventions designed to help families utilize their Housing Choice Vouchers in higher opportunity neighborhoods. This project is effective because of the deep partnership facilitated between policymakers and researchers, the blending of qualitative and quantitative data collection efforts, and the investment in tailoring interventions for each context.

Over the coming months, OMB will develop a process for determining the government-wide learning agenda. As we continue to refine our own State and Local Learning Agenda, we look forward to learning from OMB’s development and implementation process and, consequently, how such cross-cutting efforts can catalyze innovation among researchers and policymakers across sectors and geographies. To learn more about the J-PAL North America State and Local Innovation Initiative, please visit our webpage or contact us at [email protected].