Score card would rate Congress on oversight

Lawmakers should receive grades on oversight of federal agencies, just as agencies receive quarterly scores on progress implementing President Bush's management agenda, an independent consultant said Wednesday.

The Office of Management and Budget's traffic-light-style management score card has "sure worked in getting agencies' attention," said John Mercer, a consultant who bills himself as the "father" of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act. Mercer served as Republican counsel for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee for eight years. He has designed a score card that he hopes will receive similar attention from Congress.

The score card would allow observers to rate congressional hearings on a scale of 1 to 100, based on questions asked by lawmakers. Oversight committee members would earn points for inquiries about agencies' financial reports or audits, responses to General Accounting Office criticisms, performance goals, measures for evaluating progress, success at achieving goals, and integration of budget and performance information. Questions asked by the committee chairman would receive the most weight.

The numerical score from each hearing would later translate into a letter grade ranging from A to F. Mercer said he hopes that a think tank, watchdog group or academic institution will take on the task of regularly rating committee hearings and posting the evaluations.

The score card would not necessarily measure the quality of questions asked, Mercer said, but it would at least capture the extent to which lawmakers discuss federal management and attempt to hold agencies accountable for their performance.

For example, the ratings would show whether congressional committee members have reviewed agencies' strategic plans before hearings, Mercer noted. By asking even a couple of questions about these performance plans, lawmakers demonstrate that they "take this stuff seriously," he said. The inquiries send a message that agency mangers' "work isn't just paperwork," he added.

Appropriations committee members have been reluctant to use the Bush administration's management tools in budget decisions. In committee reports accompanying several of the fiscal 2004 spending bills, appropriators indicated that they were not prepared to see agencies submit performance-based budget documents, which are meant to help agencies link spending requests to performance goals, in lieu of traditional budget justifications.

Their reluctance is understandable, as appropriators are used to receiving information in a specific format that facilitates easy comparisons of annual changes in funding requests, Mercer said. Appropriators have to sort through large volumes of information over a relatively short time.

"Appropriators need to go back and look at program fundamentals," Mercer said. "As a practical matter, that's not easy. That's a good part of what they're reluctant about."

To help appropriators, Mercer recommended that authorizing committees, which set parameters for federal programs, take a lead role in the oversight process. Authorizers then could focus appropriators' attention on particular management problems.

Philip Joyce, associate professor of public policy and public administration at The George Washington University, has expressed similar views. If lawmakers spelled out performance standards in authorization bills, agencies would have an easier time prioritizing among strategic goals, he noted.

"[Authorizers] truly don't get into [performance] issues, and they should," Mercer said. The score card is aimed more at motivating authorizing committees to look at program management.

"Somebody could light a fire under [lawmakers'] seats by using a score card," Mercer said.

While spending is a major area of concern, score card grades would reflect lawmakers' attention to a host of other oversight responsibilities, Mercer emphasized.

Carl Metzger, director of the Springfield, Va.-based Government Results Center and a manager at Grant Thornton, said he is not yet familiar with Mercer's score card, but added that he approves of the idea in general. "It is helpful of course to have any attention to these things," he said.

If implemented, Mercer's grading system "couldn't hurt," Joyce said. Lawmakers might still lack adequate political motivation for doing "real" oversight rather than pointing fingers, he said, but "anything that creates incentives for agencies to look at programs comprehensively is a good thing."

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