Lawmakers remain skeptical of linking budgets, performance

During the fiscal 2004 budget process, Capitol Hill appropriators acknowledged a Bush administration management initiative asking federal agencies to link funding requests to program performance, but they remained critical, an analysis of congressional committee reports shows.

President Bush's five-part management agenda requires agencies to consider performance goals and results achieved on past projects when formulating budget requests. In turn, the White House wants congressional appropriators to base funding decisions at least partly on agencies' demonstrated progress at meeting performance goals.

But in committee reports on several fiscal 2004 spending bills, congressional appropriators said they were not prepared to see agencies submit "performance-based" budget documents in place of traditional budget justifications.

A committee report accompanying the House version of the 2004 Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development budget bill explained that appropriators view performance-based budget documents primarily as "strategic planning" tools for agency managers. In the next budget cycle, agencies should submit performance-based budget materials only as supplements to traditional funding requests, the committee said.

House and Senate negotiators "strongly disagree" with "efforts to substitute performance-based budgeting for the traditional budget structure," the conference report on the 2004 omnibus spending package stated. Performance-based materials submitted with 2004 budget requests lacked adequate detail, were not organized to meet appropriators' needs and contained "minimal" useful information, conferees said.

The Office of Management and Budget is holding a series of meetings on Capitol Hill to tout the benefits of performance-based budgeting, said Robert Shea, head of OMB's budget and performance integration initiative, on Tuesday. Congressional staff members attending a Jan. 12 meeting seemed knowledgeable about performance-based budgeting, but aired concerns about the process, he said.

"There was not wild enthusiasm, but nobody rejected it out of hand," Shea said. "People think it's a worthy goal, but there are cynics." Some congressional staff members questioned the "credibility and objectivity" of information contained in performance-based budget materials, he added.

OMB will continue to "get Hill folks and agency folks together to talk about their concerns," Shea said. "We want what we're doing to be useful to Congress." Appropriations subcommittees have varying views of the form they'd like budget information to take, he explained, presenting a challenge to agencies and OMB.

Lawmakers may take a while to warm to performance budgeting, but in the meantime, agencies will still benefit from linking strategic goals to funding requests. "[OMB] is using the information," Shea said.

Philip Joyce, associate professor of public policy and administration at George Washington University, agreed that performance budgeting is, at the very least, a good internal management tool for agencies. Over the next few years, agencies should plan on submitting both traditional and performance-based budget justifications to lawmakers, he said.

"Appropriators are creatures of habit," Joyce explained. "You can't expect them to pay attention to [performance-based budgeting] just because you want them to." OMB will not have the final word either, he said. For the new budget technique to take hold on Capitol Hill, lawmakers would have to believe that a failure to accept performance-based budgets would have political ramifications, he predicted.

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