As Political Winds Shift

Deservedly or not, government is the scapegoat for the poor economy.

Is the Obama administration's performance agenda still relevant now that voters have elected so many candidates who think government is too big and too intrusive? Should federal executives still focus on achieving incremental gains in efficiency and outcomes of their programs, or should they prepare to scale them back?

The voters' verdict on Nov. 2 came 24 hours after some 500 federal managers and contractors spent a day at Government Executive's Excellence in Government conference discussing what we called "The Performance Imperative." From these discussions emerge the beginnings of an answer to the questions above.

The election certainly showed voters are dis-satisfied. They're worried about the economy: Many have direct experience with unemployment in their families, and many fear losing their jobs and their houses. Deservedly or not, government is the scapegoat for the poor economy. And, too, many voters believe government has become too big with its massive new spending and regulatory initiatives. Voters don't like the idea that we are hocking our future to the Chinese with our deficit spending.

So next year Congress will have many more Republicans than Democrats, and they will be working to curb government's size. Substantive cuts in projected deficits will have to come from changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but for the next two years the powerful Republican bloc in Congress will be focusing not on these and other entitlement programs but on appropriations for discretionary programs. They are talking 20 percent cuts, perhaps more, in domestic discretionary accounts, and some are advocating a reduction in both the head count and the pay of the federal workforce.

So, should the ongoing drive for better performance, now led by Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, remain high up on federal agencies' to-do lists?

At EIG, I led a dialogue with Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris about the strategic plan his team had recently unveiled. Reading the plan, I was struck by what might be termed its humility. Fully 13 pages of the document were devoted to the array of external factors that get in the way of achieving departmental goals. The recession, strapped state budgets, disturbing insurance market trends, rising income inequality and collapse of retirement income security are among factors cited as impeding Secretary Hilda Solis' overarching goal of "good jobs for everyone." Performance goals for individual programs were humble too: Job Corps graduates in 2009 earned an average of $9.22, and the strategic plan envisioned raising that initial salary to only $9.50.

Stretch goals aren't often embraced by agencies on their own.

Zients, who also carries the title of federal chief performance officer, brought his management team to EIG and reported on progress on the Accountable Government Initiative he oversees. He spent just a few moments discussing progress on agencies' high-priority goals while devoting more time to parts of his agenda that appear more susceptible to direction by OMB. On hiring and information technology adoption and contracting practices, OMB directives can achieve reasonably quick results-and Zients' team members conveyed that idea.

Quick results can't be achieved in the sprawling array of federal programs. OMB exhortations could help motivate, but it's up to federal agencies to set goals, measure progress and achieve better results. The Labor Department's yearlong effort to develop a common "good jobs" rallying cry for its very disparate programs may or may not mean much to the troops, but the plan's relentless focus on outcomes, on the impact of its programs on society, instead of on outputs (hours worked or inspections completed, for example) is very much on the right track. At the same time, the plan is forthright about such obstacles to better jobs as stasis in educational attainment, as young men and women now graduate from college at the same rate as their parents' generation.

Measuring the impact of federal programs in our complex governmental and economic systems remains difficult. But many agencies might take a page from the record of the Food and Drug Administration, whose principal deputy commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, also spoke at EIG. The FDA-Track effort (www.fda.gov/fdatrack), modeled in part after performance management systems Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley developed, closely follows the agency's progress or lack thereof across many of its responsibilities. Transparency is key, Sharfstein said: "Yes, we may miss targets, or have projects delayed, but if we are frank about our problems as well as our progress, people will cut us some slack-and over time, we will improve our performance."

So, measuring progress, communicating progress and problems, being open about the obstacles to advancement, these are important to good government no matter which way the political and fiscal winds blow.

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