Satisfying Congress

How agencies are going the extra mile to provide information to their overseers on Capitol Hill.

In 1989, Paul Adams, then the inspector general at the Housing and Urban Development Department, was hauled before a House subcommittee to explain why no one on Capitol Hill was aware of the rampant waste, abuse and mismanagement in the department's programs. The HUD scandal had drawn widespread media attention and proved to be a major embarrassment for both the executive and legislative branches.

Many of the abuses, Adams told panel members, were thoroughly detailed in reports issued by his office that went unread in Congress. Not good enough, he was told. Busy legislators and their staffers don't have time to pore over every detail of IG reports, committee members said. They need federal officials to shout from the rooftops when they uncover evidence of poor performance and malfeasance-or at least to pick up the phone. It was a message Adams and other executive branch officials would hear repeatedly as senators and representatives sought to explain to their constituents why the HUD scandal was allowed to fester for so long.

So it goes in the world of congressional oversight. It seems that no amount of information is enough for overseers. Unfortunately, the demands for that information still seem to come mostly after the horse has already left the barn. Now some agencies are going out of their way to proactively offer unprecedented amounts of information on their operations to lawmakers.

This spring, the Government Accountability Office issued a case study (GAO-06-378) on such efforts. The report, which focused on the Federal Aviation Administration, highlighted two important developments: First, agencies are required to provide regular and much more detailed reports on their performance than they did in Adams' day; and second, the methods by which they do so have improved dramatically.

"FAA has made available much of the information and analytic resources that Congress needs to conduct its oversight role," GAO reported. For starters, as part of the Transportation Department, the agency issues an annual Performance and Accountability Report documenting its progress toward achieving the goals it set under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act.

But FAA goes far beyond the law's requirements. The agency produces its own five-year strategic plan, along with unit-specific business plans that detail how various agency offices are working to meet the overall plan's objectives. For example, under the strategic goal "Increased Safety," FAA sets targets for reducing operational errors by air traffic controllers. In 2003 and 2004, the agency exceeded its targets for cutting such mistakes, reducing them from 680 to 629.

In addition to the annual performance reports, FAA issues quarterly updates on its performance toward meeting the strategic goals by tracking 31 key performance measures.

Is that enough to meet Congress' needs? Not quite. In a draft version of its report, GAO recommended that FAA set up a special For Congress section on its Web site to highlight performance-related information for overseers. So the agency did just that. The page includes news releases, congressional testimony by FAA officials, all of the various performance reports and other statistical data. If members and staffers can't be bothered to check the page regularly, then they can subscribe to an e-mail service that notifies them when new information is posted.

GAO wants even more, urging FAA to add a frequently asked questions section to the Congress page and to proactively set up meetings with appropriate committee staffers to discuss performance issues.

Even without such measures, the report makes it clear that FAA is on the leading edge of federal agencies in gathering performance information and providing it to members of Congress. For other agencies, the prospect of making it simple for lawmakers-who, let's face it, are sometimes less than fully objective in their assessments of how the federal bureaucracy functions-to view all the gory details of their operations will no doubt be daunting. But as the amount of information about agencies' performance continues to increase and technology renders it easier and easier to share, places to hide are getting harder and harder to find.

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