Since July 2011, Optimal Solutions Group, with help from USAID’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Businesses (OSDBU), has been supporting USAID in many rigorous evaluations projects by leveraging domestic experience and partnerships.
At the time, there were few small firms with rigorous evaluation expertise working with USAID. The Optimal attendees, included Dr. Mark Turner, an economist who had a track record of leading many national rigorous evaluations, was selected to meet with USAID program and procurement representatives. Optimal was eventually awarded the Agency’s E3 Bureau’s Learning Evaluation and Analysis Project (LEAP I) and Secondary Analysis for Results Tracking (SART) contracts.
One of Optimal’s first LEAP I assignments was to conduct a tablet-based population-based survey in Liberia within six months. Its success on this challenging task – which included building the capacity of a locally based organization to ensure they could conduct a similar survey in the future – spread quickly among USAID Washington E3 Offices. Ebola struck right before the final presentation was to be held, and most ministers were directed to work remotely.
Optimal created and shipped localized libraries of the household data which allowed for drill-down analysis of nationally representative survey results and poverty indices. Under LEAP I, Optimal implemented a total of 28 task orders in 26 countries in less than four years, with projects ranging from agricultural cost-benefit analyses in Ethiopia to performance evaluation of programs intended to improve education outcomes and youth civic activism in Armenia. Sanitation, maternal and infant health, rule of law and economics were all areas for which Optimal provided rigorous analysis.
For example, Optimal’s efforts included conducting extensive data collection, analysis, and model development for agricultural projects that increase rural incomes in Uganda, reviewing irrigation investments in Tanzania, and evaluating programs to improve the business environment for private-sector growth in Nepal. The project’s COR, Stu Callison described the work as “a remarkable cross-section of USAID tasks” and a “productive and successful project, helpful to many of us.”
Optimal was simultaneously working on the SART project, which was initially conceived of as two data sets on early education. Optimal realized early on that to ensure data security and develop a data standard, a systematic and auditable approach to transforming data received from implementing partners was needed to create easy-to-use open data that could be used to track improvements in educational outcomes as well as inform policy and programming decisions.
Optimal developed the USAIDEducationData.Org portal, taking in millions of education assessments, information about the myriad interventions, and contextual information using advanced Extract Transform, Load (ETL) and data visualization tools. The USAID Office of the Chief Information Office issued an Authorization to Operate the USAIDEducationData.Org portal in 2016 after operating under a limited authority initially.
Looking back on these numerous rewarding experiences, results form Optimal’s work have withstood review by external organizations such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office and inquiries by the World Bank. Optimal’s efforts have created actionable deliverables which have guided policy decisions resulting in improved program performance as well as cost savings. This framework allows stakeholders to have access to reliable information in times of crisis and in establishing solid governance.