Federal executives must set goals for how they are going to solve perennial management problems at their agencies, the head of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee said in letters sent to every major federal department this week.
Providing federal leaders with lists of their agencies' unresolved management weaknesses, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., urged every agency to address those weaknesses in the annual performance plans required under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). Thompson developed the lists based on General Accounting Office and inspector general reviews of federal operations in recent years.
"Each year, we get reports from agencies, the media and the GAO detailing how many billions of dollars the government wastes," Thompson said. "We bring the responsible agency up here and fuss at them, but then everyone goes back to business as usual. This committee is determined to be persistent and helpful in following up on getting these problems corrected once and for all."
In addition to the lists of management problems, Thompson's letters discuss GAO reviews of agencies' performance plans and ask agency leaders to improve those plans based on GAO's recommendations. Thompson also asks each agency to explain what measures it is going to take to address long-standing management challenges and invites agency representatives to meet with Governmental Affairs Committee staff to discuss strategies for improving operations.
Thompson praised some agency leaders for developing results-oriented goals and quantifiable measures for improving their programs, while urging other leaders to step up their performance measurement efforts.
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater received a warm letter from Thompson praising his department as "one of the most successful federal agencies in implementing GPRA." GAO's review of DOT's performance plan for fiscal year 2000 found that the plan identified clear performance goals, specific plans for reaching those goals, and provided confidence that performance data will be credible.
In contrast, the letters to the departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, State, Treasury and the Small Business Administration called on the agency heads to improve their weak plans. For example, Treasury's plan for fiscal 2000 does not address high-risk problems identified by GAO, including tax filing fraud and asset forfeiture programs. And, HHS is not attempting to validate data provided by local agencies on their effectiveness in helping the homeless and mentally ill, Thompson said.
Thompson hopes his committee's attention will help agencies focus on problems that seem to never go away. Such attention helps, Thompson said. Congressional and executive branch attention to Medicare fraud and error helped the Health Care Financing Administration reduce Medicare overpayments by $8 billion from 1997 to 1998. HCFA has also established goals to further reduce erroneous payments in the coming years.
Linda Ricci, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said OMB Director Jacob Lew sent guidance to agencies last month on integrating performance measures into their budgets.
"Improving performance in agencies is something we take very seriously," Ricci said. "In the budget process we have identified priority management objectives, and we will continue to make serious efforts to make sure performance measures are an integral part of budgeting."
Donald F. Kettl, director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Management, said the federal government is reaching a critical point in GPRA implementation, as agencies enter into a second round of strategic planning, a third cycle of annual performance planning, and the first round of performance reporting. (The first annual reports explaining what results agencies got for the time and effort they put into programs are due to Congress in March.) Kettl sympathizes with federal managers faced with the pressure to perform.
"After we had the battle over the size of government in the 1980s, we learned that we like the government we have, but we just don't want to pay as much for it," Kettl said. "There's tremendous pressure for more results in government. I start out with a great deal of sympathy for government managers who are trying to make the Results Act work."