Get Ready for Results

Agencies are likely to meet the fall deadline for drafting strategic plans under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), but many of those plans will be poorly done, the General Accounting Office predicts in a new report.

GAO found that while nearly three in four senior executives were involved in their agencies' strategic planning process, less than 40 percent of lower-level managers were involved, despite GPRA's directive to involve people from all levels of agencies.

The lack of widespread involvement in drafting strategic plans is one factor GAO says makes it difficult for agencies to answer the question: "What are we accomplishing?"

"Federal managers report that results-oriented performance measures often do not exist," GAO reported. "As a result, it is not surprising that managers also report that results-oriented performance information frequently is not used to make important decisions affecting their agencies and programs, even when performance information is available."

Under GPRA, agencies have until the end of the fiscal year to complete initial strategic plans, outlining their missions and primary goals. Agencies' first annual performance plans, including proposed performance measures, are also due this fall. Eventually Congress and the administration hope to link agencies' budgets to their ability to produce results.

Agencies are supposed to consult with Congress on their plans. Both Congress and federal managers are finding the consultations can be contentious.

"Consultations aren't going nearly as well as they could," said Christopher Mihm, GAO's assistant manager for federal management issues, at a hearing Tuesday of the House Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology. Mihm said some agencies have not yet contacted Congress to begin consultations, which is disturbing because GPRA "did not sneak up on agencies."

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said agencies should get into the habit of regularly measuring program performance.

"Business organizations do this everyday," Davis said.

John Koskinen, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, said that at this point, every agency's strategic plan requires additional work.

"This is a massive undertaking," Koskinen said.

Both OMB and GAO have released reports outlining the challenges confronting agencies as they head into the home stretch for complying with GPRA.

GAO identified five major problems agencies face:

  • Coordinating programs. "In program area after program area we're just replete with overlap and duplication," Mihm said. In addition, agencies with contradicting missions will have trouble creating strategic plans. The Forest Service is a prime example, with its competing missions of protecting forests and allowing logging of them.
  • Measuring how federal programs influence results that are affected by many factors. In grant programs, for example, the federal government administers funds but does not actually carry out programs.
  • Improving performance data. GAO says that it has "consistently found that the quality of agencies' performance data is often questionable due to several factors, including the need to rely on third parties to provide data.
  • Becoming results-focused. Many federal managers are process-oriented, GAO says. Fewer than one third of federal managers GAO surveyed said that results-oriented performance measures exist for their programs to a great or very great extent.
  • Linking performance plans to agencies' budgets. Some government programs, like research and development and education programs, will have difficulty showing the relationship between costs and benefits.

In its report, OMB highlighted the successes of pilot GRPA agencies, who have been practicing strategic planning and performance measurement for up to three years. OMB said agencies just beginning GPRA planning should review the lessons learned by the pilot agencies. Without the pilot programs, "there would be little prospect for a successful implementation of GPRA governmentwide," OMB said.

While the first few years of life under GPRA will be difficult for agencies, OMB said the pilot projects prove that "virtually every activity done by government can be measured in some manner."

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