Science agencies get mixed signals on Results Act

Federal science agencies are making a "good faith effort" to comply with the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, but often get conflicting instructions from Congress on how to implement the law, according to a new report from the government's top scientific academies. The five major agencies that fund federal science and engineering research have tried to comply with GPRA, but oversight bodies, including Congress, have provided contradictory feedback about tying performance results to their annual budgets, the report said. A committee operating under the auspices of the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council prepared the report. "Unless the agency responses to GPRA are useful to Congress in the urgent task of setting priorities and budgeting, the value of the act might not warrant the time and effort it requires of the federal government," said the committee's report, which focused on the compliance efforts of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense and Energy departments, and NASA. According to the report, one agency tried to tie its GPRA reports more closely to its annual budget, only to be told by a congressional committee to use a previous format. But another agency was told to stop using the old format and do a better job linking its performance goals to its annual budget. Agencies lack a strong incentive to link results with their budgets, according to the report, since Congress has not yet integrated GPRA into the annual budget process. During a House Government Reform subcommittee hearing in June, Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Sean O'Keefe said President Bush's chief management priority is linking the performance goals of federal programs to agency budgets.

O'Keefe said agencies will be required to submit performance-based budgets for selected programs during the fiscal 2003 budget cycle, the first time agencies have been forced to tie their spending decisions to performance goals.

The new report urged scientific agencies and oversight groups to develop more realistic reporting schedules for their research. GPRA was designed to enable the administration and Congress to connect agencies' performance plans and reports to their annual budgets, but often basic research on programs must be monitored over several years to accurately gauge results, the report said.

"The timing [of GPRA] is unfortunate for several reasons …. Neither agencies nor the public receive a benefit when agencies create detailed performance plans before they have sufficient recent information on the performance of current programs," the report said. The report encouraged agencies and GPRA oversight bodies, such as Congress, the General Accounting Office and the Office of Management and Budget, to communicate more regularly and in a more collaborative fashion. Agencies had complained to the committee that oversight groups are often "quicker to criticize shortcomings than to suggest improvements."

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