- “Why are we where we are?”
- “Why are we where we are at the level that we are?”
- “Are the programs that we are in where we are actually working?”
I began working at Peace Corps Headquarters in October 2010 as an Evaluator in the Office of Strategic Information, Research, and Planning. During my first few days at my new job, these were the three questions that were buzzing around all eight floors of the agency. And they were BIG questions that got right to the heart of what Peace Corps is, wants to be, and wants to do. As an evaluator, these were questions that made my eyes widen, my curiosity start to pulsate, and a grin start to slowly form across my face…because I knew I was hired to help answer those very questions.
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected President. As all Presidents do, they begin the process of sending out teams to every federal agency to begin its transition to support the new President’s plans and priorities, and to begin making decisions on who they will appoint to strategic political positions within each agency. Peace Corps was no different, and in 2009, President Obama appointed Aaron Williams to be the 18th director of Peace Corps. During his approval process, Director Williams shared with Peace Corps staff that he was asked a myriad of questions about his vision for Peace Corps, but that one question in particular stuck with him: “Why are we where we are?”
Director Williams’ first order of business was to request an agency assessment – an inquiry into agency operations that would ultimately expand upon the narrow question of why Peace Corps placed Volunteers where it did, and respond to a larger question: “If the Peace Corps were created today, what should it look like?” In its efforts to answer this question, the assessment team found itself embarking on a comprehensive review that led them in countless directions that involved all levels of agency staff and Volunteers.
At the time of my hiring, the assessment team’s job was complete, concluded with the publication of the Comprehensive Agency Assessment in June 2010. In my first day on the job, I was given a copy of the assessment, and told to pay particular attention to the chapters and recommendations on adjusting Volunteer placements and on evaluating the impacts of Volunteers. These were the areas that my office was charged with implementing, and they would dominate the next six years of my life.
So, why are we where we are? Well, prior to 2010, Peace Corps was where it was because it had received invitations to a country from that country’s leadership, had made an independent decision based on available funding and strategic priorities of whether to send Volunteers to that country, and conditions in the country remained favorable enough to continue sending Volunteers there. So, in shorthand:
Step 1: Receive invitation to country
Step 2: Accept invitation to country
Step 3: Keep sending Volunteers to country
After 2010, my office formalized the strategy, steps, and structure for determining the size and distribution of Peace Corps’ country portfolio in order to make the most strategic use of its fiscal and human resources. In essence, we formalized and operationalized a plan for what happens between Steps 1 and 2 above.
In building that process, we embraced two main criteria for determining where to send Volunteers: a country’s commitment to the Peace Corps, and the assurance that the safety and security of Volunteers and staff can be maintained. Beyond that, we debated, discussed, and decided upon the inclusion of numerous other data sources (both existing and yet-to-be-built) to help conduct a review of Peace Corps’ country portfolio. These included Human Development Index rankings, cost effectiveness of country office operations, ability to recruit local staff, availability of local doctors, historic early termination rates, and the list goes on and on…to approximately 200 data points.
The Country Portfolio Review Process, carried out annually, provides Peace Corps leadership with a transparent and data-informed process to make the tough choices to expand, reduce, or even close operations in its countries. The process reflects the Peace Corps’ best judgment of where it can strategically maximize its effectiveness and impact.
Want to learn more about the Country Portfolio Review Process? Come to the next RPCV Phoenix Board Meeting, where I will be giving an in-depth presentation on the topic. Details are as follows:
- Sunday, June 4th
- Skye Lucking’s House
- RSVP to the invitation on Facebook so we have an accurate count!