Agencies lose ground on latest performance reports

Citizens poring over the most recent round of reports by federal agencies on their own performance would come away with little idea of how government affects their lives, according to a study released Thursday.

An audit of agency performance reports by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., found that federal agencies are getting worse at communicating their missions to the public. Nineteen of the 22 agencies rated by Mercatus scored lower on their fiscal 2001 reports than they did in fiscal 2000. Mercatus graded the reports against three criteria: clarity and accessibility; demonstration of results to the public; and leadership in fixing management problems.

This is the third year Mercatus has evaluated the performance reports, which are required by the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act. Mercatus did not evaluate reports from the Defense Department, which turned its report in late, or the Education Department, which failed to produce a report at all. Comptroller General David Walker blasted Education for its apparent disregard of the 1993 law.

"I am shocked and disappointed that an agency evidently did not decide to prepare a performance and accountability report," Walker said at a press conference held to release the Mercatus study. "This is not optional and it is unacceptable for anybody to think it is."

The Transportation Department earned the highest grade from Mercatus, edging out the Veterans Affairs Department, last year's top-rated agency. "This recognition by the Mercatus Center shows that our strengthened focus on results and accountability is paying off," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a statement.

Poor performers included the Health and Human Services and State departments, and the Office of Personnel Management. Each of those organizations has consistently turned in poor-quality reports under the Mercatus criteria. Mercatus criticized OPM, for example, for establishing vague performance goals, basing these goals on inaccurate data and including only scant evidence of how it intends to improve its performance.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission notched the biggest one-year improvement in the study, surging from 21st place last year to fourth this year. But the Agency for International Development plummeted from third in fiscal 2000 to 18th this year.

Maurice McTigue, director of the Mercatus Center's Government Accountability Project, credited senior leaders at Transportation and Veterans Affairs for making the performance reports a top priority. But Mercatus penalized HHS, in contrast, for not even including a cover letter from Secretary Tommy Thompson in its report.

"What would you think about an annual report from a private firm that did not have a cover letter from the CEO?" asked Mercatus fellow Jay Cochran, who directed the study.

The overall poor showing by agencies could be result of the change in presidential administrations, the Mercatus report said. But most agencies continue to have trouble setting goals that relate to meaningful outcomes, instead opting to measure internal management outputs that mean little to the general public. AID, OPM, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Agriculture, State and Housing and Urban Development departments also failed to put their reports on the Internet, making access by the public difficult.

In addition, only five agencies could prove the reliability of the data included in their performance reports, according to a related General Accounting Office study released Thursday. "This establishes a shaky precedent for the future of performance management," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who requested the study.

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