Department’s Learning Agenda bolsters modernization efforts

Learning Agenda Question Team members gather for a photograph at a breakfast meet and greet in December 2022. Photo by Matthew Hermerding
Learning Agenda Question Team members gather for a photograph at a breakfast meet and greet in December 2022. Photo by Matthew Hermerding

By Harrison W. Brooks

The Learning Agenda, a Department of State initiative launched in June 2022, aims to help the Department deliver on its mission to protect and promote the United States’ security, prosperity, and democratic values where all Americans thrive. Led by the Office of Foreign Assistance and the Bureau of Budget and Planning, the Congressionally-mandated initiative includes 40 bureaus and, as of early 2023, more than 140 learning activities that assess how the Department conducts business on behalf of the American people. 

The learning agenda allows the Department to explore what is working in the conduct of its foreign affairs work, what the Department can improve, and why an activity might work in one setting, but not in another. This research agenda helps to strengthen a culture of evidence-informed decision-making in policy planning and operations by addressing the Department’s most pressing foreign policy priorities. 

Cross-bureau Question Teams are assessing the effectiveness of public diplomacy, countering global disinformation, and promoting democracy, among other learning priorities.   

“While our objectives are ambitious, we recognize that foreign policy is not easily quantifiable. We can use this opportunity to look at our data and see what worked, what didn’t work, what levers were most effective? This evidence will inform how the Department tailors its future foreign assistance and diplomatic engagements,” said Director Dafna Rand during a meeting with the Countering Disinformation team, Nov. 8. 

Bureau of Budget and Planning Director Douglas Pitkin stated, “In many cases, we just need to look at what we are already doing but be able to understand—what was successful—and why. Which are the right levers?”

To broaden perspectives and overcome institutional blind spots, the Department is also collaborating with subject matter experts from academia, think tanks, and other external stakeholders. To date, these partners include the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which helped launch the Learning Agenda in 2022, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which hosted a roundtable discussion to scope Learning Agenda questions surrounding diplomatic engagement. 

With several learning activities nearing completion in 2023, Question Teams will begin circulating their findings to the Department’s leadership and staff as well as the public. Sharing findings and reflecting collectively on insights from learning activities are the first steps toward making evidence-based policy decisions a core tenet of how the Department conducts business. The Department continues to explore outlets for sharing these findings to ensure evidence generation under the Learning Agenda remains transparent and accessible to all stakeholders.

Harrison W. Brooks is a consultant in the Office of Foreign Assistance. 

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