Despite seven years on the books, the 1993 Government Performance and Results (GPRA) Act is not used widely among Capitol Hill decision makers, and its future importance could depend heavily on the November elections, according to several congressional observers and staff.
The law, which requires agencies to set performance goals each year and then report on whether they met those goals, is not without its vigorous supporters in both the legislative and executive branches. The fate of such supporters in this fall's elections could go a long way in determining GPRA's future impact.
In the area where GPRA might be expected to have its most prominent role-appropriations-progress has been decidedly slow. While performance reports are now a mandatory part of agency budget requests, the erratic quality of these reports and the political nature of the budget process have so far conspired to minimize GPRA's effect.
"If you're writing about the use of GPRA in budgeting, you can write a very short article," said Dr. Jerry Ellig, senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center.
When Ellig and his colleagues set about rating performance reports for fiscal year 1999, fifty percent of the twenty-four agencies failed to earn even a thirty on the sixty-point scale. The grades were based on the presence of transparency, documentation of public benefits and forward looking leadership in the documents. The U.S. Agency for International Development's report was judged to be the most outstanding of those examined.
One of the hurdles to integrating performance measures into budgeting, Ellig noted, is that many agencies would likely find it difficult to fully quantify what they were accomplishing and, therefore, might see their budget slashed. A focus on results, rather than activities, in their performance measures would help agencies overcome this difficulty, he added.
An agency not included in the Mercatus Center study, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), has moved almost exclusively to GPRA-based budgeting. Because it is funded entirely by user fees, the office has the ability to accurately determine how much they can do, based on the amount of fee-generating services they expect to provide.
However, Congress routinely threatens to withhold a portion of the revenue earned by the office. This year, as a result of their use of GPRA provisions, the office was able to restore a good deal of the funding that had been proposed for withholding.
"The results-driven focus of our program and budget planning is key for me in evaluating operations and setting strategic direction," said Q. Todd Dickinson, director of PTO. "By digging into the data I have a feel for whether what sounds good in the board room is effective in practice. This also gives me the information I need to change course with confidence and with the buy-in of everyone."
PTO begins each year by identifying its priorities and then linking them to a strategic agenda. When an agency (within PTO) asks for a certain amount of money, they have to quantify how that sum will contribute to reaching the performance measures that are linked to the agenda.
Senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., Chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, is spearheading the effort on Capitol Hill to familiarize members and staff with the GPRA process. He has met with every committee chair on the issue and garnered the support of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska for stepping up the legislative role of GPRA. Thompson's office is emphasizing that performance reports have a role beyond the appropriations process.
"This is a key tool," said Robert Shay, counsel to Thompson's committee and a key player in the push to expand the use of GPRA in Congress. "Every committee should be using it in their day-to-day operations, particularly for oversight."
Although Senator Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the ranking minority member on Governmental Affairs and now Al Gore's vice presidential running mate, has worked closely with Thompson on the issue, Democrats in general have been more reluctant to embrace GPRA than their Republican colleagues. If the election produces a Democrat majority in the House, Senate, or both, the life now in the GPRA movement could be somewhat drained.
"I don't see the Democrats rallying to the cause," commented Virginia Thomas, a government studies expert from the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The real hope for GPRA is to institutionalize it regardless of what party is in control."