The Grading Game

Timothy B. Clark

Ihe Government Performance Project, whose second-year results are the subject of this issue of Government Executive, got its start more than four years ago, when executives of the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia decided that devising and publicizing a careful grading system for government might serve as an incentive for improvement in our public sector.

Here we present the second iteration of the project, done once again in a partnership between Government Executive and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. This year, we have examined and graded five new federal agencies, bringing the total examined so far to 20, or two-thirds of agencies identified by the Clinton administration's National Partnership for Reinventing Government as having a high impact on the public. This special issue also includes articles on trends in effective management in the fields of human resources, information technology, finance and managing for results.

We've graded agencies on their capabilities in these four categories and one other, capital asset management, because they provide a common basis on which to evaluate institutions with little in common beyond their service to Uncle Sam. These are good measures of bureaucratic capacity, but we have found that they don't tell the whole story. They cannot capture the heart and soul of an agency, or the essence of the problems that constrain its performance.

Seeking that level of understanding, our reporters have researched the societal, demographic, budgetary and, especially, political worlds in which agencies operate. This year, we have been able to devote more time to such deeper exploration, and we are proud of the results. I have not seen a better portrayal of agencies' challenges in meeting their obligations to the public.

What lessons emerge from this year's Government Performance Project? One is that many agencies are simply running out of room to "do more with less." Huge maintenance backlogs and underinvestment in equipment and people are sapping their ability to deliver. That problem stems from agencies' inability to persuade Congress to give them relief. Another lesson: Agencies often aren't successful in budget battles because they cannot convincingly demonstrate either their needs or a track record of careful stewardship of public resources. Solutions here involve closer attention to financial management and more effective deployment of information technology.

Another lesson is that politics trumps management every time. Anne Laurent's article about Congress' savaging of Veterans Affairs health chief Kenneth Kizer for his temerity in pursuing money-saving and service-improving reforms offers a great case in point. Parochial politics, budget shortages and all the problems that attend the huge size and difficult missions of federal agencies are with us to stay. But a last lesson emerges from this issue, one that's appropriate to our media-conscious times. It is the primacy of public relations, lobbying and making one's case for desired outcomes-as Kizer admits he should have done, and as Coast Guard Commandant James M. Loy is doing very effectively.

We thank our colleagues at Pew and at Syracuse for their support of this project, and we hope it serves our readers well.

Timothy B. Clark

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