Lunch Discussion: View from the Hill
August 24, 2011 – 12:30 p.m.
||Lori Rowley, Professional Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
Minority (Lugar, Ranking)
Robin Lerner, Professional Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
Majority (Kerry, Chair)
Robin Lerner and Lori Rowley, staff members for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee presented on the need to bridge the disconnect in communication between Congress and USAID/Washington and Mission staff. This disconnect makes it difficult for USAID staff and implementers to understand the reasoning behind the actions of Hill staff and vice versa. In order to close this gap, Lerner and Rowley provided information about how the Senate Foreign Relations Committee functions as well as how it relates to USAID’s work and offered advice on how to prevent future problems given the current financial constraints on U.S.-funded programs.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has full jurisdiction over USAID and its programs in addition to treaties and nominations. The Committee also it issues a State Department Authorization Bill every year indicating the programs and policies viewed as most important, under which many USAID activities fall. The greater emphasis given to these programs creates a higher priority for funding. While the Committee authorizes programs, it is the Appropriation Committee that appropriates funding. Lerner drew the distinction between the two committees to show the importance of her committee as well as its limitations vis-a-vis funding. She also discussed the difficulty of passing a bill that can be brought to the Hill only once a year.
The presenters addressed misperceptions between the field and Washington staff and ways their communication can be improved. The misconception of some program implementers that no one on the Hill cares about their programs may be a result of the way USAID functions, which “does not fit well” with Washington priorities and Hill needs which require immediate information from experts who are often out in the field. A lack of this information makes it very tough to justify support for programs on Capitol Hill. Lerner advocated that USAID staff and program implementers understand this and make sure their programs can be justified to avoid any future problems. She described the speed of communication among workers in Washington and the lag of communication with field officers. She noted that communication is often non-existent unless a program is threatened and suggested replacing crisis communication with continuous dialogue. When correspondence is delayed or unanswered, the Hill feels insecure and will take actions as a result.
The presenters were open about the pressures they face and their difficulty allocating funds for foreign assistance when many domestic issues remain unaddressed. They acknowledged that USAID is far more controlled than other agencies and that the reporting requirements can be difficult to manage along with programming. They clearly stated that only programs with demonstrable effectiveness will be eligible for funding. They also emphasized the importance of assessment and monitoring for reports on program effectiveness. Though it is critical for all programs to have clear goals,
what comprises effectiveness will be determined on a case-to-case basis. Program evaluation results provide essential data to demonstrate effective and efficient investment of public funds. Lerner explained that the Hill would prefer to hear that program results show that a specific program did not work out the way it was originally intended, and therefore needs to be revamped. This shows that results are being used to inform decision making, and USAID staff should not be afraid to share these lessons learned. The presenters reiterated the need for regional staff to provide information on results and to prioritize regional projects when the Agency is faced with budget constraints. They encouraged regional office representatives to be proactive communicating their thoughts, ideas and problems. They acknowledge that staff in the field best understand the key problems in the region and are better positioned to prioritize projects seeking USAID assistance. The use of low cost, innovative technologies that extend programs could be a cost-effective way to meet the larger goals of USAID’s new education strategy. Efforts to develop and maintain stable governments in host countries that foster cordial relations aligns with the U.S. foreign policy that is the central guiding principle of the new education strategy.
Key take away points include the need for more open and regular communication between USAID and Congressional staff as that will help the Committee defend USAID programs. The importance of showing results was also reiterated as it is very difficult to pass bills on the floor in the current conditions. The better data we present on the effectiveness and efficiency of money spent in the field, the greater our chances of demonstrating the wise allocation of funds in the legislature.
No presentations available from this session