Agencies get mixed grades on Senate panel's management test

Eleven of the 24 largest federal agencies are still having trouble setting specific performance goals to tackle major management problems, according to a new report by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairs the committee.

In August 1999, Thompson sent letters to the heads of the 24 agencies covered under the Chief Financial Officers Act, detailing serious management problems at their agencies and urging them to address those weaknesses in annual performance plans required under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act.

From November 1999 through June 2000, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee staff met with managers of each of the affected agencies. The new report is based on the committee's assessment of agency performance plans and analyses done by agency inspectors general and GAO.

"Unfortunately, in many agencies, there is insufficient attention to the problems that are stifling effectiveness and draining precious resources. In those cases, agency leaders either don't realize the severity of the problems or don't think such 'management minutiae' deserves their attention," Thompson said in a preface to the report.

The Health and Human Services Department was the only agency that scored 100 percent in the committee's grading system. HHS established extensive performance goals for all eight of its management challenges.

The report praised HHS for linking its problem with Medicare overpayments to specific error-reduction goals in its performance plan, resulting in a Medicare error rate that is dramatically lower than it has been in previous years.

Other agencies that successfully set goals for a majority of their management weaknesses included the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Defense Department, the Office of Personnel Management and the Transportation Department.

Four agencies-the General Services Administration, the Agency for International Development (USAID), the Small Business Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission-failed to set any goals.

Major management challenges cited by inspector generals and GAO include financial management, computer and data security, information technology resources, procurement and grant management, and human capital issues.

Every two years, GAO releases its list of "high-risk" agency programs-programs that are most susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse. Most agencies agreed with the challenges cited, but agency officials noted that since GAO only updates its "high-risk" list every two years, some problems may have been resolved, but will still appear on the list. Some agencies also disagreed on what defines a "mission critical" program or what constitutes a major management problem.

Agency officials also said that when dealing with major management challenges, the link between federal programs and desired results is often difficult to establish.

A few agencies that received low scores emerged stronger than others in some areas. For example, the committee's report found that USAID made a concerted effort in its performance report to explain why certain programs failed to achieve their goals and to describe future strategies for dealing with those weaknesses.

On the other hand, FEMA-which set goals for 10 of 12 management challenges-was criticized by Thompson's committee for not providing enough information in its performance report about plans to address its un-met goals.

The report recommended that the Office of Management and Budget clarify and strongly enforce Results Act guidance to get agencies to develop more specific goals and measures to deal with waste, fraud and abuse, and advised agency inpsector generals and GAO to be more aggressive in following up on their management recommendations.

The committee said that agencies need to include more information about how they plan to meet un-met goals in the future and must incorporate performance measures for major management challenges into the performance agreements of agency leaders and program managers.

The report comes on the heels of another Thompson report. Released Oct. 20, that report said that 16 of 24 agencies had not developed or submitted information technology management reports required under the Clinger-Cohen Act.

Despite most agencies' failure to tackle management challenges, Thompson praised what he called "pockets of progress" throughout the government. "Generally, where such progress is occurring, it is the result of dedicated civil servants and political appointees working diligently to instill performance-based management in their agency. That is what it will take to solve many of these problems," he said.

Click here to view the Thompson report.

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