GAO: Park Service offers Results Act lessons

When the National Park Service started drafting its strategic plan under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, headquarters executives knew that field managers at the 376 national parks, monuments, historic sites and recreation areas had to be involved if the plan were to be anything more than a paper exercise.

So managers at Park Service headquarters and in the field worked on strategic plans separately, and then met together, haggled back and forth to work out differences and made the service's overall plan consistent with each park unit's plan. Though managers said the process was difficult and frustrating, they agreed that involving everybody was the best way to come up with a plan that balanced the needs of both headquarters and field staff.

That's just one of the lessons other federal agencies can learn from the Park Service's efforts to develop a Results Act strategic plan and an annual performance plan, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office ("National Park Service: Efforts to Link Resources to Results Suggest Insights for Other Agencies," GAO/AIMD-98-113). Every federal agency was required to write a five-year strategic plan last September, followed by an annual performance plan for fiscal 1999 in February. In March 2000, agencies will have to report to Congress on whether goals laid out in fiscal 1999 performance plans were met.

Park Service executives have emphasized the importance of using Results Act strategic plans and performance plans in day-to-day management, managers told GAO. "Such a show of support made a positive difference in the attitudes of field staff toward the strategic planning process," GAO said.

But while high-level headquarters management and field staff were involved in drafting strategic and performance plans, mid-level managers at headquarters were mostly left out, GAO said. Park Service officials conceded to GAO that if they had to do the planning over again, headquarters staff would have been more involved.

Still, by involving people across the country, the Park Service came up with an eight-step process for performance management. Every office, program and park in the Park Service system can use the process to develop program goals and ways to measure performance. The Park Service has put a copy of its planning guide, which includes a description of the eight-step process, on its Web site.

Now that the Park Service has written its strategic plan and mapped out its goals for fiscal 1999, managers are grappling with two main problems: Figuring out how to actually measure performance and linking spending to goals.

For example, GAO noted that the Park Service will have difficulty measuring its efforts to improve water quality in park lakes, rivers and streams. Water quality standards needed to support plants and animals differ from species to species, so hundreds of quality measures are used across the park system. In addition, parks don't have the baseline data against which to measure performance.

The Results Act instructs agencies to justify budget requests by tying proposed spending to specific goals. Toward that end, the Park Service created the Performance Management Data System (PMDS), an internal Web site on which managers enter annual performance goals, along with estimated funds and staffing needed to reach those goals. But Park Service officials told GAO that budget and accounting systems, which tie spending to specific activities, like construction, cultural programs and land acquisition, do not mesh with the PMDS, which attempts to attach spending levels to specific goals, like improved customer service or better water quality.

"Park managers have no way to track or report how actual spending compared to planned spending by goal at the end of the fiscal year," GAO said. "Until the agency develops a system for linking its goals to its budget and accounting systems, parks will continue to produce two sets of books: one for planning purposes using data from PMDS and another for financial accountability and budget execution purposes."

Park officials say the budgetary link is essential to making the Results Act work, at least internally. The planning process helps managers prioritize and set realistic plans that recognize budgetary limitations, officials said. But managers are more apprehensive about sharing that information with Congress and headquarters, who might use estimated spending for goals as justifications for cutting budgets, GAO found.

Managers at the Park Service know the Results Act process doesn't end with a finished plan, Donald J. Barry, acting assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks told GAO in its response to the report.

"Next steps include closer GPRA linkages with budget and finance systems and with personnel appraisals," Barry said. "GPRA should be a management tool, not simply a reporting one."

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