Doing What Works

Agencies that monitor progress regularly show the biggest gains in efficiency.

Federal officials are about to find themselves in the hot seat under a requirement to show whether they're making progress toward President Obama's goals for improving government operations. As part of the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, agencies in June will start conducting quarterly performance reviews focused on their high-priority goals.

The White House will follow next year with reviews on governmentwide objectives. Is this another bureaucratic exercise in futility? Not necessarily.

When done well, regular, goal-driven reviews can boost institutional performance dramatically. As agencies look to implement a revamped Clinton- era Government Performance and Results Act in the coming months, they should learn from successful performance-monitoring systems already in place at agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the Veterans Affairs Department.

"We are seeing more and more agencies learn the power of this simple management practice-running frequent goal-focused, data-driven reviews," says Shelley Metzenbaum, associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget. Reviews work best when agencies "look for successful practices and figure out how to speed their adoption," she adds.

With deficits rising and a Congress hungry to cut underperforming programs, agencies are under pressure to carefully allocate resources and demonstrate the benefit of their operations. Effective management practices in government are more important than ever.

Quarterly reviews are just one part of a larger performance framework established by the GPRA modernization law. Agencies and OMB now must set clear goals, develop and continuously update strategies for achieving them, monitor progress toward milestones, and hold government officials accountable for results. That framework echoes recommendations from the Center for American Progress in its July 2010 report, "From Setting Goals to Achieving Them." To help guide agencies through this transition, OMB officials and the Performance Improvement Council will provide feedback and training, she says.

Agency heads must be committed to these reviews if they're going to work, according to John Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government who played a key role in crafting the original GPRA bill. "For agency senior leaders to make that commitment, the reviews must cover issues that they see as critical to their mission," he says. "This will likely require agencies to rethink their existing set of priority goals."

FAA, for example, has conducted monthly reviews in some form since the early 1990s. The current system is organized around monthly performance targets for flight safety, capacity of the nation's air system, international travel and organizational development. The manager responsible for each target reports to a 17-person management board during the meeting.

The monthly reviews have led to noticeable improvements in FAA's programs, says Toni Trombecky, manager of the strategic planning division. "You keep people focused," she adds. "When senior management pays attention to the details, performance tends to improve."

To be sure, even the most effective performance reviews come at a price. It takes time and resources for agencies to conduct these evaluations, and program managers are already pressed to increase productivity amid tightening budgets. But effective reviews have proved well worth the investment. The Center for American Progress showcased success stories in its recent report, "Performance Reviews That Work," featuring best practices at FAA, NASA and VA.

As government programs face greater scrutiny, the new GPRA framework could put more officials in the accountability hot seat-but it's also an opportunity for agencies to restore the public's trust in government. Frequent performance reviews will help government managers identify problems early on, make critical tweaks along the way and achieve real results.

John Griffith is a research associate with the Doing What Works project at the Center for American Progress.

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