Federal agencies have virtually no idea whether most social service programs designed to help the needy actually work, according to a Bush administration report released last week. The report, "Unlevel Playing Field," documented a series of bureaucratic hurdles that prevent faith-based and community-based groups from participating in federal social service programs. The effect of their exclusion is not clear, the report argued, because most social service programs lack performance measures as required under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). As a result, agencies have no way of knowing if the current system of awarding social service grants to large, secular organizations is a success, the report said. "These federal programs may be doing significant good, and the grantees that routinely win renewed support may be the best available" said the report. "However, in the absence of meaningful performance reviews, agencies have no concrete basis for concluding so." While the report concluded that federal agencies are biased against collaboration with religious organizations - a finding emphasized by President Bush and White House officials - faith-based groups also suffer in a federal grants system that rewards the same organizations year after year regardless of performance, according to the report. For example, eleven large organizations routinely share the largest number of grants from the Labor Department's Senior Community Service Employment Program, according to the report. While Labor has developed performance goals for its programs, department officials cannot independently evaluate information submitted by grantees, the report found. The Education Department has had even less success with creating performance measures that program managers actually use, the report said. "At Education, most program offices were unfamiliar with their programs' GPRA objectives and could not even locate the GPRA reports," said the report. Agencies face real obstacles in developing performance measures to evaluate the success or failure of federal grants, according to experts and the report. The outcomes of social service programs are notoriously difficult to quantify, said Donald Kettl, a scholar with the University of Wisconsin's LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs in Madison. And Uncle Sam does not routinely collect performance data on organizations that receive grants - which are often selected by state and local governments - according to the report. But agencies must do a better job of evaluating how social service programs are working, the report concluded. "This record indicates the need for an across-the-board emphasis on demonstrating the actual efficiency of the programs that government funds," the report said.
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