Agencies' performance reports show modest improvement

Federal agencies are doing a slightly better job of telling the public what their missions are and how they plan to meet them, according to a study released Wednesday. A research team from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. evaluated the quality of 23 major agencies' fiscal 2000 performance reports in three areas: clarity and accessibility, demonstration of agency results and leadership in identifying problems and offering solutions to them. More than half the reports, which outline the accomplishments of agencies over the past year, scored higher in fiscal 2000 than in fiscal 1999. This is the second year agencies have submitted performance reports to Congress and the second year the Mercatus Center has analyzed the reports. The average score was about 5 percent higher for agencies' fiscal 2000 performance reports than their fiscal 1999 reports, the report said. The departments of Veterans Affairs and Transportation and the Agency for International Development received the highest scores for the quality of their reports. Those three agencies also occupied the top spots in last year's study. NASA received the lowest score, and was joined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Health and Human Services Department at the bottom of the rankings. The Agriculture Department missed the deadline for submitting its performance report and was not included in the Mercatus study. The criteria used to score the fiscal 2000 reports were tougher than last year's requirements, according to Mercatus officials. For example, an agency could get high scores for accessibility last year if its fiscal 1999 report was easy to find on its Web site, but for the fiscal 2000 report, an agency had to make it available in easy-to-download, clearly-labeled segments to receive a perfect score. Tougher criteria were used in scoring agencies' fiscal 2000 reports because agencies who performed well last year are doing even better this year, said Jerry R. Ellig, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center. "The agencies that are doing these reports really well are raising the bar for the others and setting new standards," he said. While agencies are generally good at articulating mission goals that affect the public, they are not always adept at coming up with performance measures of those goals, Ellig said. Linking cost data to results also poses a challenge. Ellig praised Veterans Affairs, which received the highest score, for linking its cost data to results in its performance report and breaking down each cost program-by-program. "VA is far ahead of most agencies in reporting cost information," he said. On the other hand, NASA's report had many problems, ranging from not posting its report on its Web site to unreliable performance data and no demonstrated links among goals, results and costs. The report also criticized NASA for using jargon that is difficult for outsiders to understand. In one goal for space science, NASA wrote: "Demonstrate performance of the Superconductor-Insulator-Superconductor (SIS) mixer to at least 8hv/k at 1,120 GHz and 10hv/k at 1,200 GHz." While this goal may be important, it's link to results is unclear, the report said. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations, joined Ellig and Maurice McTigue, director of government accountability at Mercatus, in announcing the report's findings Wednesday. McTigue emphasized that the rankings did not reflect how well agencies performed their individual missions, but rather how well they are reporting them. Thompson, Horn and McTigue urged Congress and the Bush administration to make government reform and management a priority by linking performance to agencies' annual budgets. "We need to decide if we're going to be serious about this, or quit it. If we're not going to do it, then we should quit it and say 'Government is government and we're going to waste a couple billion dollars a year,' " said Thompson. Agencies are required to write strategic plans and prepare annual performance plans and performance reports under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). The reports are due to Congress every March. Horn said agency leaders need to view laws such as GPRA as important vehicles for improving their organizations. "Agency leaders must stop looking at these laws as burdens and start realizing their benefits," he said.
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