Congress flunks agencies' performance plans

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Congress has given failing grades to federal agencies' fiscal 1999 performance plans, which lay out agencies' goals for next year.

A massive grading effort of 24 major agencies' performance plans spearheaded by the office of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, left most agencies' plans with abysmal ratings--the average score congressional evaluators levied was 42 out of 100. The Transportation Department's performance plan outscored all the other agencies' plans, with 71 points, while the General Services Administration took last place with 14 points.

Under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, agencies prepared annual performance plans for the first time during this year's budget cycle, setting out goals federal managers will have to meet in fiscal 1999. For example, in its performance plan, DOT pledges to reduce transportation-related fatalities in fiscal 1999 below the fiscal 1995 baseline of 44,407. The Health Care Financing Administration, which runs the Medicare program, promises to improve Medicare beneficiaries' satisfaction in 1999. (To review agencies' performance plans, see GovExec.com's Results Report.)

Agencies' performance plans were graded by teams of staff members from congressional committees with jurisdiction over the agencies, according to staffers involved in the process. Some agencies' plans were graded by both Senate and House staffers, by both Democratic and Republican staffers, and by both authorization and appropriations committees' staffs. The make-up of the grading teams varied from agency to agency. For instance, the Veterans Affairs Department's plan was graded by Democratic and Republican authorization committee staffers from the House and the Senate, but appropriations committee staff members did not participate in the grading.

Graders assessed the plans in four areas:

  • How clear and measurable agencies' goals were.
  • How well agencies described the strategies they would use to meet the goals.
  • How credible agencies' performance information was, or whether agencies recognized they would have trouble collecting data upon which to measure performance.
  • How easy the performance plan was to read and understand.

G. Edward DeSeve, the acting deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said he is glad Congress is taking the Results Act seriously.

"We're very pleased the grades are in the hands of the authorizers," DeSeve said. "We looked at the scorecard, but we still have reservations as to whether grades are the best way to foster communication. [Nevertheless,] we've been encouraging agencies to keep talking with their authorizers about the grades and to keep making improvements in their performance plans until they are effective on October 1."

Carl DeMaio, a Results Act specialist at the Washington-based Congressional Institute, said agencies' performance plans are weak because their initial strategic plans were weak. Agencies developed five-year strategic plans last year, upon which they based their performance plans.

"If an agency has a strong strategic plan, then the performance plan should write itself," DeMaio said. "Many of the agencies are still struggling because their strategic plans did not provide a firm foundation for performance planning."

Agencies also face problems assessing their performance because they don't have the baseline data upon which they can measure their programs, DeMaio said. The Health Care Financing Administration, for example, does not have information on Medicare beneficiaries' satisfaction. So before the agency can tell whether its efforts to make beneficiaries happy are working, it will first have to develop customer service measurements.

Patrick Lester, a policy analyst with OMB Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group, said the congressional evaluators measured the process of performance planning, but not the validity of goals. Once Congress is using the Results Act to make policy decisions, then the act will be a success, Lester said.

"GPRA should be considered successful if the plans are being considered by decision-makers. But politics is not going to go away. Hopefully the GPRA process will help Congress and others make more informed decisions," Lester said.

But for now, several members of Congress say agencies' plans are not in good enough shape for decision-makers to use.

For example, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the Labor Department's plan "leaves too much unanswered to be as useful and effective as we would like."

Goodling also blasted the Education Department's plan. "Many of the department's strategies are nothing more than a list of President Clinton's new initiatives," Goodling said. "In addition, the department is still focusing too much on measuring processes. Sometimes it is not clear how the process will help achieve the program goal."

The chairman and the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee issued a joint statement on VA's performance plan, lauding the department on the improvements it has made to the plan and thanking VA leaders for meeting with committee staffers to discuss further improvements department managers can make. "VA still has a long way to go before it has achieved its strategic goals with results-oriented management," said chairman Bob Stump, R-Ariz., and ranking member Lane Evans, D-Ill. "Yet we believe the VA takes its commitment to veterans very seriously."

Congressional Evaluations of Agencies' Performance and Strategic Plans

Agency Performance Plan
Score (04/98)
Strategic Plan
Score (11/97)
Transportation 71 75
Veterans Affairs 62 49.5
Education 61 73
Nuclear Regulatory Commission 58.5 59
Small Business Administration 58.5 31
Agency for International Development 53 36
National Science Foundation 51.5 69
Justice 51 49.5
Treasury 49 52.5
Federal Emergency Management Agency 47.5 51
NASA 47.5 67
Labor 42 29.5
Office of Personnel Management 40.5 31
Health and Human Services 36.5 43
Agriculture 36 39
Housing and Urban Development 35 40.5
Environmental Protection Agency 34.5 44
Commerce 33 28
Interior 30.5 29.5
Energy 30 42.5
Defense 29 28.5
State 24 41
Social Security Administration 17 68
General Services Administration 14 40.5

Source: House Office of the Majority Leader
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