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The Federal Performance System: Looking Back to Look Forward

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Image via Nik Merkulov/Shutterstock.com

In December, a forum co-hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration and the IBM Center for The Business of Government reflected on the evolution of a results-oriented federal performance management system over the past two decades and how it will evolve over the next few years.

The forum participants comprised a range of stakeholders in the federal performance and results management system: agency performance improvement officers, strategic planners, program evaluation leaders, and priority goal leaders. In addition, there were participants from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Federal agencies, Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, academia, state and local government, unions, and non-profits – all of whom play a role in improving government performance.

The Forum’s Objectives. The forum was designed to address four elements:

  • First, to bring representative stakeholders together from across the performance management system.
  • Second, to create a common frame of understanding of the “state of play” in the performance system, by having OMB provide an overview of changes underway, and examples of early progress.
  • Third, to surface key implementation issues from the perspectives of the various stakeholders, and
  • Fourth, to produce a report that could be used more broadly to explain the federal performance system and how the requirements of the new law will change the system in coming years.

The Updated Federal Performance Framework. OMB described its objectives and strategies for the performance management framework that is now reflected in both law and guidance to agencies. They say they recently completed visits to the 24 major departments and agencies to share the framework and an interagency group meets every two weeks to further refine it.

Many aspects of the framework are already in place. For example, to date, OMB and the agencies have set 117 initial priority goals and measures of progress, designated goal leaders, conducted quarterly progress reviews, and developed a governmentwide reporting structure so progress information can be posted on a common, central website on a quarterly basis.

Key elements of the new law that will be implemented in the future include updates to all agency strategic plans, annual performance plans, and priority goals; the development of an inventory of all federal programs and an annual review process for agency strategic objectives; and the posting of additional information on performance.gov. The timetable for these is interdependent, so it will take some effort to coordinate them all (see graphic) and phase them in appropriately.

Examples of Early Progress. While fleshing out the framework has absorbed a great deal of time and energy, pioneering initiatives under the earliest phases of the framework demonstrate the value of a disciplined approach to focus on results-oriented priority goals. For example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ priority goal to reduce violent crime on a handful of Indian reservations by 5 percent resulted in decreases in crime by more than half. The lessons from these reservations have been shared more broadly with over 300 other Indian communities.

Similarly, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), have jointly committed to reduce the number of homeless veterans. They are doing this through targeted efforts in 21 communities with the largest number of homeless veterans. Agencies sent in top-level teams into each community, developed a 100-day plan of action, and are working across organizational boundaries to overcome barriers in order to meet their goal. To date, VA and HUD are making progress in reducing the number of homeless veterans from 67,500 at the end of 2010 to 35,000 by the end of 2013, on track toward a goal of no homeless veterans by the end of 2015.

Key Challenges in Coming Months. The various panels at the forum identified three areas of challenges that OMB, Congress, and the agencies will face in the coming months as the federal performance system is updated to reflect the requirements of the new law:

  • How will agencies effectively execute on the goals they set? The new law attempts to focus attention on getting better results on the ground, not just compliance with planning and reporting requirements.  Panelists saw transparency, proactive leadership, focusing on results and not process, and employee and external stakeholder engagement as critical success factors. Several panelists noted that agencies have had significant experience in this arena, albeit not uniformly across agencies and programs.
  • How will agencies improve the ways they make strategic tradeoffs and choices to improve performance? Panelists observed that a key element in making strategic decisions is being able to develop the right questions to be answered. They agreed that this is an area where agencies are breaking new ground, but that recent experiences with the use of regular reviews and cross-functional teams have demonstrated that progress is being made in figuring out how to make such tradeoffs.
  • How do we make reporting, or performance information dissemination, more useful and meaningful to stakeholders, including the Congress? Panelists agreed that this issue will require more work in coming years and more understanding of the needs of specific stakeholders, including Congress, especially as technology is making it possible to create more explanatory and real-time information. The Performance.Gov website may be a place for experimentation on this issue, but it may not be the only or even the best venue for that. Work and understanding in this area will need to evolve.

Next Steps. The IBM Center, in conjunction with the National Academy, have committed to developing a report in early 2013 summing the insights of the panelists and stakeholders at the forum, and identify some of the potential options for addressing the challenges raised. So stay tuned!

Image via Nik Merkulov/Shutterstock.com

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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