Fedblog FedblogFedblog
Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Moneyball Government, Again

ARCHIVES
The 2002 Oakland Athletics were the subject of Michael Lewis' book. The 2002 Oakland Athletics were the subject of Michael Lewis' book. Ben Margot/AP file photo

The Moneyball movement in government is gaining steam again. It started with the release of the film version of the Michael Lewis book in 2011, bringing to dramatic life the story of the Oakland A’s’ Billy Beane, and his efforts to substitute (or at least substantially augment) baseball scouts’ intuition about players with data-driven decision-making.

Soon, the Office of Management and Budget was endorsing the Moneyball approach, arguing that government needed to be relentlessly focused on goals, not processes, and rigorous in efforts to gather evidence about program performance. And that evidence, ultimately, should be used to drive budget decisions, the Obama administration declared.

Fast forward almost two years, and two high-ranking officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations put the question starkly in the July/August  “Ideas Issue” of The Atlantic: “Can Government Play Moneyball?” John Bridgeland, a Bush policy adviser, and Peter Orszag, Obama’s first OMB chief, argue that less than $1 of every $100 in government spending is spent analyzing whether the money is being spent wisely.

While the Moneyball approach seems trendy, the idea of measuring the performance of government programs isn’t new. Even in its modern incarnation, it’s more than two decades old. I actually wrote a cover story in Government Executive on the phenomenon in June 1992.

So why are we still talking about getting started? Part of the problem is it’s really hard. Back in 1992, the cautionary tale about the perils of performance measurement involved the Job Training Partnership Act, which provided states and localities with funds for job training, remedial education and job search assistance. It had simple performance measures: states were rated on how many people they placed in jobs, and at what cost.

Getting people actual jobs seems like a perfectly good performance measure, right? Yes, up to a point. The problem was that local offices started cherry-picking clients they could place most quickly and tailoring their services to them. And those folks didn’t necessarily stay in the jobs they found. So the Labor Department had to overhaul performance measures to factor in how many people were still in their jobs three months after being placed.

Even if you develop the right performance measures -- which can take years of trial and error -- you’re faced with the issue of getting people to act on them. Every program has  congressional backers, and often they’re not interested in learning about whether or not their pet project is working. If it’s delivering a benefit to a particular constituency, then mission accomplished.

So should we just give up on the idea of ever directing increasingly scarce federal dollars to programs that actually work? Not necessarily. Bridgeland and Orszag argue for holding politicians’ feet to the fire by creating a Moneyball Index to rate members of Congress on their support for programs that have been shown not to work.

Even in the absence of such a tool, John Kamensky of the IBM Center for the Business of Government argued recently that there are a bunch of reasons to think the push to evidence-based budgeting may be gaining traction. Among them:

  • Agencies are collecting more data than ever.
  • Tools to analyze the information are getting more sophisticated.
  • Leaders across the political spectrum are beginning to pay attention.

On top of those factors, the budget situation is leading directly to increased interest in squeezing the most out of every federal dollar.

Of course, sustained progress in this area would require an ongoing commitment to assessing and improving federal performance in both the executive and legislative branches. That’ll be the trickiest part of all.

Twenty-one years ago, then-OMB management chief Frank Hodsoll told me, “we’re a long way from doing [performance-based budgeting] in any meaningful sense in the federal government.” We’re still pretty far away, but we may be getting closer, little by little.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.