Agencies' annual reports get mixed reviews

Most federal agencies' annual reports need to be clearer, more honest and easier for people to find, a study released Tuesday said.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University scored the annual reports, which agencies produced for the first time this year. The reports were intended to serve much the same purpose as corporate annual reports, demonstrating what the organization accomplished over the past year.

The Mercatus Center gave the highest scores on the quality of the reports to the Agency for International Development and the Departments of Transportation and Veterans Affairs.

The performance reports mark the culmination of the first complete cycle of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), a 1993 law requiring agencies to write strategic plans and prepare annual performance plans and performance reports. Agencies wrote their first performance reports-due to Congress in March-assessing how well they met their goals in fiscal 1999.

A Mercatus research team evaluated the quality of 24 major agencies' reports. The analysis focused on three areas: clarity and accessibility of the reports is to the public, demonstration of agency results, and leadership in identifying problems and offering solutions to them.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Ca., chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Managment, Information and Technology, joined Maurice McTigue and Jerry R. Ellig of the Mercatus Center in announcing the report.

"As long as Americans keep giving their tax dollars to the government, federal agencies should be prepared to report in a very forthright, revealing manner just how their money is being spent. We didn't observe that openness with many of these reports," said McTigue.

Thompson, McTigue, and Ellig emphasized that the rankings were not a reflection of how well the agencies were performing their individual missions, but rather how well they are reporting them.

McTigue underscored this point using NASA's handling of the Mars expedition as an example. He praised the agency for doing an excellent job keeping the public apprised of the situation as it developed, but critized it for not "telling the story" well enough in its performance report.

NASA received an overall score of 27 out of a possible 60 points.

The average score was 31 points, with the top-ranked agencies scoring almost 20 points above the average and those in the bottom tier scoring about 10 points below average. The Agency for International Development received the most points with 52, while the National Science Foundation finished last with 21.

Overall, agencies did well describing their goals and including baseline and trend data to put performance measures into context, the report said. The report said agencies need to provide cost data, assess the reliability of data and demonstrate the impact of agency actions on the public.

AID received high scores for making its report clear, concise, and easily accessible on its Web site, while the Transporation Department garnered praise explaining its financial management performance measures.

The performance reports from the top-rated agencies were all lauded for discussing problems and failures candidly.

"You have some [agencies] holding press conferences, and some who are hunkered down in the weeds," said Thompson.

In addition to the National Science Foundation, the lowest-ranked agencies included the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture. NSF was criticized for not demonstrating a link bewteen results and cost, while USDA was chastised for overly technical and acronym-laden language in its report.

Thompson said he wants to integrate the report analyses into the appropriations process.

"If we don't integrate this into the budget process, it is meaningless," he said, adding that Congress should support agencies who report goals and accomplishments candidly and sanction those who do not.

The Mercatus Center is located at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. The report, Performance Report Scorecard: Which Federal Agencies Inform the Public?, is available at the Mercatus Center Web site.

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