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Priority Goal Leaders: Is the Concept Working?

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I’ve been getting calls from reporters asking whether President Obama is interested in government management. The answer is yes. A management innovation he introduced in the early days of his administration is finally taking off. Sometimes it takes a few years to find out if a management innovation works.

Early in the Obama administration, the Office of Management and Budget announced an initiative to create a select few High Priority Performance Goals for agencies, as a replacement for the Bush administration’s Program Assessment Review Tool. The Bush effort attempted to assess the effectiveness of more than 1,000 government programs. The idea behind the new Obama initiative was that there were too many things being tracked and that there should be a much smaller set of priorities defined by each agency that would get meaningful attention from their leadership.

The Obama administration set out to identify agency goals, designate leaders for each goal, hold quarterly progress reviews and post their status on a public website. While still in a pilot stage, Congress embedded the initiative into the 2010 GPRA Modernization Act.

Did this innovation work?

A close observer of federal management initiatives, Donald Moynihan at the University of Wisconsin, writes that the creation of priority goals seems to have made a difference, based on surveys of agency managers by the Government Accountability Office. He says: “Rational reforms of government are largely the triumph of hope over experience. The Modernization Act may have succeeded in breaking the pattern of failure by combining hope with experience.”

He adds: “The act established a new series of performance routines to encourage performance information use. Our analysis of GAO survey data shows that as federal managers experience those routines, they are more likely to report using performance data to make decisions. Specifically, routines centered around the pursuit of cross-agency priority goals, the prioritization of a small number of agency goals, and data-driven reviews are all associated with higher rates of performance information use.”

A newly released GAO report on the roles and responsibilities of agency priority goal leaders seems to confirm that the management initiative is working.

The Priority Goals

When Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget was released in March, agencies refreshed their priority goals for fiscal 2014-2015. There are 89 agency priority goals for 23 major departments and agencies. Following are examples of what agencies have designated as top priorities for the next couple years:

  • Expand broadband services (Commerce)
  • Turn around the lowest-performing schools (Education)
  • Secure vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide (Energy)
  • Reduce foodborne illness (Health and Human Services)
  • Reduce homelessness (Housing and Urban Development)
  • Reduce worker fatalities (Labor)
  • Reduce the risk of aviation accidents (Transportation)

Each goal includes targets, timetables for action and quarterly progress reports, all available on performance.gov.  

Goal Leaders

“One of the key leadership roles under GPRAMA is the agency priority goal leader,” the GAO report said. “Individuals in this role are responsible for the achievement of agency priority goals, which are to reflect agencies’ highest priorities.” Agency goal leaders are authorized to coordinate progress reviews and make course corrections across their agency and program.

There were 103 agency priority goals for the 2012-2013 period. GAO interviewed 46 of the goal leaders, who were high-level officials: seven were agency heads or acting, nine were assistant or acting secretaries, 28 were career executives and 18 were political appointees.

Michael Huerta, Federal Aviation Administration administrator–and a priority goal leader–told GAO that “having a goal leader who is also the head of an agency is important because he or she has the authority to engage agency employees to achieve the goal.” A number of other goal leaders told GAO it is important to balance having someone at a high level with the need for a goal leader who has the time for regular involvement.

OMB encourages goal leaders to designate a deputy “as the person who can perform the important function of connecting APG leadership and strategy with actual implementation.” GAO found that only 35 of the 46 goal leaders interviewed had a deputy, however, recommending that all goal leaders make such a designate.

In addition, the goal leader had changed for about 40 percent of the agency priority goals GAO examined, and the deputy had changed for about 30 percent. A recent article flagged this as a potential drawback, but so far there haven’t been noticeable ill effects.

Does the Name Matter?

“A majority of the goal leaders said the goal leader designation had benefits for their APGs,” GAO reported.

Goal leaders told GAO the “APG designation led to an increased focus on data use,” and noted “the designation and related requirements elevate the goal, provide additional structure, and communicate the department’s commitment to it.”

Goal leader Jim Macrae, associate administrator at the Health and Human Services Department’s Bureau of Primary Health Care, said the designation resulted in “additional importance and leverage in the context of the department’s competing priorities, and helped to facilitate communication and create momentum in working with health centers.”

Deborah Delisle, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said her designation as a goal leader “has caused her to think more about the goals and how they relate to other aspects of the department’s work and to think more strategically across the whole Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

Several of the goal leaders interviewed said “using performance information was a central part of managing their goals,” GAO said. “Goal leaders we interviewed reported using performance information to support decision-making, monitor performance and report progress.” In pursuing the Labor Department’s goal of reducing worker fatalities, for example, the goal leaders used worker fatality data to target enforcement and education to specific industries. As a result, the fatality rates for the three targeted industrial sectors either declined or stayed the same for 2012- 2013.

While two-thirds of goal leaders interviewed found value in the designation, about a third said it did not affect goal achievement. “Some said they could not distinguish their role as goal leader from what the work they were otherwise doing,” GAO reported. Mark Johnston, acting assistant secretary at HUD, said that it was more of a description of his continuing role as an agency leader rather than a significant change in responsibility.

Potential Next Steps

Now that the innovation of targeted agency priority goals, with goal leaders and quarterly reviews, is embedded in agencies, what more might be done?

GAO said some fine-tuning of the initiative was needed. It recommended embedding goal leaders’ responsibilities into individual performance plans, improving connections with other contributors to the goals, and sharing best practices through the cross-agency performance improvement council.

The Obama administration and future ones may want to use this management innovation more prominently, now that the foundation has been built and tested. The government might select more challenging goals. (e.g., HHS chose increasing the number of health care centers certified as patient-centered medical homes as a priority goal, but not implementing health care reform). Agencies may also want to determine how to make the process more dynamic. When the environment shifts dramatically, can an agency drop existing priorities and set new ones? I understand the Veterans Affairs Department, for example, was told it had to keep its existing priority goals even though the recent scandal has dramatically shifted the attention of agency leaders to other, more pressing, priorities. The challenge is how to maintain some continuity, but still ensure that the priority goals don’t become a “side issue” that leaders must comply with.

The roles of goal leader and deputy goal leader, at this point, are largely treated as “other duties as assigned.” One possible step may be to symbolically treat the role as a high honor, including a designation certificate signed by the president, and/or an exclusive cross-agency network (the Australian Public Service has an APS 200 network of its top civil servants).

(Image via Brues/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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