December 24, 2009: as DC was beginning its holiday retreat, a group of career USAID staff walked over to USDA to congratulate our newly confirmed Administrator. There was a great feeling of anticipation as we briefed him on our ideas for bringing policy, strategic planning, budget responsibilities and many core competencies back into the Agency.  The next few weeks involved a seamless mix of teleconferences and gift wrapping, reform discussions and holiday meals.

Village meeting in Ethiopia to evaluate community based practices. Photo Credit: Virginia Lamprecht, Office of Learning, Evaluation & Research, PPL

For those of you who have been with the Agency long enough to remember PPC (Bureau for Policy and Program Coordination)  and its disbanding, the re-establishment of a policy and planning function within the Agency was a bright day. While it took six months to establish PPL in June 2010, the extensive consultations both internally and externally, were essential to creating this bureau. What excites me about our new PPL bureau is that it has been designed to reflect the new development environment in which we’re working.  In practice, this means PPL seeks to infuse science and technology, engagement with traditional donors and new actors in the development landscape, and more rigorous evaluation and learning into our work across the Agency, including our policy and strategic planning processes.

On the eve of PPL’s one year anniversary, I’d like to reflect on where we have traveled in the course of a year, and what will be most critical in this next phase. When the bureau was established, one of the first orders of business was bringing back the Agency’s policy capacity, which resulted in the creation of our Policy Task Teams (PTT). First out of the gate was our Evaluation Policy. Built on the Agency’s long and innovative history of evaluation, it has been called ‘a model for other federal agencies’ by the American Evaluation Association. On its heels, in March the Agency launched its Education Strategy, and soon, we will be releasing the Agency’s Strategic Framework, Policy on the Development Response to Violent Extremism and Insurgency, Climate and Development Strategy, and Water Strategy.

Meanwhile, our dynamic Science and Technology (S&T) team has introduced new opportunities to use scientific, technological and research-based approaches to development—ranging from the launch of Grand Challenges for Development (the first of which resulted in over 600 applicants) to new partnerships with agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to building internal S&T capacity—one pillar of which has doubled USAID’s AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) fellows to a current high of 41. Their efforts serve as a prime example of leveraging resources and expertise by broadening the pool of development ‘solvers’—both functionally and geographically.

While the pool of innovators is expanding, so too is the donor landscape, which brings more opportunities for division of labor and an even greater need for transparency. Our Donor Engagement Team represents the Agency at key high-level forums while also working on the Agency’s strategy to engage new donors.  After months of work in cooperation with the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), we have just completed the quadrennial peer review, which assesses our government’s development assistance policies and programs against DAC goals. All of the important aid effectiveness work will culminate in Busan, Korea, in November at the Fourth High Level Forum on  Aid Effectiveness.

Coming full circle, much of this work is most tangible in the field, including our work with host country governments. The launch of Country Development Cooperation Strategies (CDCS) has revitalized strategic planning and budgeting—requiring Missions to demonstrate selectivity, focus and clear development objectives with a five-year horizon. With 20 CDCS’s currently underway, we plan for all USAID Missions to have a CDCS by the start of FY13. We congratulate our CDCS pioneers: Sri Lanka, Uganda, South Sudan and the Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE).  Closely linked, much of the great work of policies, evaluation and innovation comes together with project design. The creation of the Project Design Assistance Corps (PDAC) was one of a few tools initiated to support Missions in meeting their mounting project design needs.

So where does this leave us now? As we continue implementation of the Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) and USAID Forward’s reforms, the success of PPL will be determined by our impact on the field. How closely we can link our policy, strategic planning and project design processes; the extent to which our joint State-USAID streamlining efforts take root and alleviate over-burdened Mission staff and program officers, and how deeply the tools of science and technology influence all of the processes above—these are a few things we’ll be tracking.

At the one-year mark, I am humbled and inspired by the dedication of all USAID staff and the caliber of what you do. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I’m stepping into year two eager with anticipation of what our Agency will deliver.

Susan Reichle is Assistant to the Administrator of the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning.