Report recommends agencies use outside experts to evaluate programs

Federal agencies could benefit from hiring outside experts to help them analyze program performance data, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

Agencies need specialists in statistical and research methods, as well as specialists in relevant academic fields, to help them assess how their programs are doing, the report (GAO-03-454) said. If agencies do not have the appropriate analysts in house, they could look to experts from other agencies or private companies.

For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) relies on experts from the National Institutes of Health to evaluate some programs, while the Coast Guard hired TRW Systems, a defense contractor acquired by Northrop Grumman in December 2002, to help evaluate security programs at 55 seaports. Contractors also collect data on lifejacket use and use of navigational aids such as buoys and electronic charting for the Coast Guard.

NSF and the Coast Guard are two of five agencies that GAO studied from June 2002 to March 2003 to glean tips on program evaluations. Along with the Housing and Urban Development Department, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Administration for Children and Families, NSF and the Coast Guard serve as models for agencies aiming to complete thorough and successful program evaluations, GAO said.

The five agencies run programs that range in mission from scientific research to providing assistance to low-income families, but they all share a commitment to evaluating their work frequently, according to GAO. More than half of 234 federal programs evaluated by the Office of Management and Budget failed to adequately assess program performance for fiscal 2002.

In addition to relying on help from outside experts, the five agencies GAO studied worked on improving the quality of information gathered, the report said. The agencies improved their administrative procedures for gathering and storing data.

For instance, HUD created an automated system to collect data on outstanding grants. The system alerts workers if the data is incomplete or inconsistent. The Coast Guard developed a database to track hours and money spent operating and maintaining specific boats and aircraft. This information is useful when managers are drawing up budgets and would like to allocate funds based on program performance, the report said.

The five agencies all said GAO's report accurately portrayed their methods of evaluating programs.

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