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OMB, Agencies Need to Read the Fine Print in 2016 Budget

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Buried deep in the 2016 consolidated appropriations bill passed by Congress late last year to avert another government shutdown there are a number of obscure provisions that have important implications for the Office of Management and Budget and federal agencies. Like a trail of bread crumbs left by some performance-obsessed Hansel and Gretel, they point to a world of improved management.

But the law is over 2,000 pages long, with more details in the accompanying committee reports. So allow me to steer you to five noteworthy requirements for agencies and OMB:

Fund the implementation of cross-agency priority goals. The 2010 amendments to the Government Performance and Results Act required OMB to designate a small handful of cross-agency priority goals and name senior officials accountable for their implementation. There are now 15 cross-agency goals, such as encouraging foreign investment in US-based jobs and improving customer service in federal programs. Progress towards these goals is reported quarterly, but until now agencies had no designated funds for staffing or implementing the goals. OMB asked for a fund to support these goals, and in the omnibus (p. 163), Congress authorized $15 million in interagency transfers to support these efforts (p. 581).

Report the status of agency customer service initiatives. President Obama signed an executive order in 2011 requiring agencies to develop customer service plans. It is one of the 15 cross-agency priority goals. But the House Appropriations Committee noted in its report accompanying the appropriations bill: “The Committee appreciates that the Administration has tried to improve customer service. However, more needs to be done to improve the services that the government provides.” The committee directed OMB to report on agencies’ progress in developing customer service standards and incorporating them into their performance plans (p. 31). This report is due in mid-March.

Create a repository for agency budget justifications. For years, the Appropriations Committees saw agencies’ formal budget justifications as proprietary documents, not to be shared publicly. That changed in recent years with the open government movement, and agencies published them on their own websites. Now the Appropriations Committee is actively promoting their easy availability: “The Committee encourages OMB to develop a central online repository where all federal agency budgets and their respective justifications are publicly available in a consistent, searchable, sortable, and machine readable format.” (p.32)

Link budget requests to performance plans. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, has been a strong proponent of performance-informed budgeting ever since he joined the House Appropriations Committee several years ago. His fingerprints are on several provisions in the Committee’s report this year, which notes that some progress was made in recent years to better link agency performance plans with their funding requests but that “more needs to be done.” The report notes:

“Performance measures in future budget justifications should clearly demonstrate the extent to which performance reporting . . .  demonstrates that prior year investments in programs, projects, and activities are tied to progress toward achieving performance and priority goals and include estimates for how proposed investments will contribute to additional progress.” And, “In particular, performance measures should examine outcome measures, output measures, efficiency measures and customer service measures.” (p. 31)

The Committee urged OMB to work with agencies to ensure their fiscal year 2017 budget requests are “directly linked to agency performance plans” and wants OMB to report to the House and Senate committees by mid-June on how it is integrating performance measures into its budget processes.

Fund pre-election presidential transition activities. The bill also includes $13.3 million in pre-election transition funding to the General Services Administration for office space, furniture, computers and software, (such as resume software to handle the thousands of job applications for the 4,000 or so open political appointments). (p. 524)

While I’m sure there are more hidden bread crumbs in the bill and its accompanying committee reports, these are some that will create a stir in parts of agencies that have been wondering if Congress cares about performance. From this most recent appropriations bill, it looks like it does.

(Image via Nata-Lia/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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