Program assessments factor into Bush plan to trim deficit

President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget proposal unveiled Monday would make a dent in the deficit by holding overall discretionary spending to a 2.1 percent increase and by cutting or significantly scaling back more than 150 federal programs deemed ineffective, obsolete or duplicative.

The proposed cuts and reductions would save $20 billion in fiscal 2006 alone, Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten told reporters. "This budget restrains spending in a responsible way by focusing on priorities, principles and performance," he said.

In making funding decisions, the White House considered whether programs meet national priorities, justify the use of federal tax dollars and produce intended results, Bolten said. Programs deficient in any one of those areas saw cuts in funding, he noted.

OMB again used formal program evaluations to guide decisions. Administration officials reviewed an additional 20 percent of all major federal programs in preparation for the 2006 budget release, bringing the total number of programs evaluated to 607 programs and the cumulative percentage to 60. As in the past two budget cycles--in which the White House looked at 20 percent and 40 percent of federal programs respectively--evaluators used a 25-part questionnaire called the Program Assessment Rating Tool to assign one of five grades: effective, moderately effective, adequate, ineffective or results not demonstrated.

Programs generally earned better grades on the latest round of evaluations than in the previous two cycles. More managers were able to prove their programs were working and secure an "effective" rating.

Of the programs rated for fiscal 2006, 15 percent ranked as "effective," 26 percent earned marks of "moderately effective," 26 percent ranked as "adequate," 4 percent were rated "ineffective" and 29 percent could not demonstrate results. Last year, 38 percent of 407 programs evaluated could not demonstrate results and only 11 percent earned "effective" ratings. Half of the 234 programs evaluated in time for the fiscal 2004 budget failed to show results and 6 percent received "effective" scores.

Despite notable progress on PART scores, President Bush recommended cutting 48 of the 607 programs evaluated for the fiscal 2006 budget cycle. Of these, two earned "effective" marks, three earned scores of "moderately effective," nine received a rating of "adequate," nine ranked as "ineffective" and 25 received "results not demonstrated" marks.

The PART was "a factor" in proposing to eliminate all 48, but "wasn't the only factor in any of them," said Robert Shea, head of OMB's budget and performance integration initiative. In some cases there's a clear link between poor scores and recommendations to cut programs, he noted. For example, three independent reviews indicated that Even Start, an Education Department program designed to help young children learn to read, was ineffective, he said.

Other programs rated well but were not a priority for the White House, said an OMB official who asked to remain anonymous. This should not discourage agencies from trying for good scores on the administration's formal evaluations, the official noted.

On average programs that received positive ratings did obtain more generous allotments in Bush's fiscal 2006 request. The "results not demonstrated" programs that managed to escape cuts saw an average decrease of 1.2 percent over enacted fiscal 2005 levels of funding. Ineffective programs that remained alive got 25.8 percent less, on average. In contrast, "effective" programs earned an average increase of 5.7 percent and "moderately effective" programs typically received a 4.1 percent increase.

OMB officials noted that the PART evaluations yield many suggestions for improving program management. "While the administration believes that an increasing number of programs will earn 'effective' ratings, we also stress that PART recommendations are more important than PART ratings because the focus of the PART is on continuous improvement of program performance," the White House stated in the budget request.

The administration will begin tracking agencies' progress toward addressing these recommendations using a Web-based system, Shea said. Previously, OMB collected such information in quarterly reports from agencies. Some sections of the online status reports, scheduled to debut in time for the coming round of PART evaluations, will be available to the public, he said.

While OMB officials emphasized the PART's benefits as a management tool, they acknowledged that as deficits grow, the evaluations are more of a factor in decisions. "Particularly in a period of tight budgets, these programs must improve their performance, or their resources may be moved to higher performing programs," Bush stated in the budget proposal.

Congress, however, will likely prove resistant to many of the proposed cuts. In fiscal 2005 appropriations bills, lawmakers funded all but one of 13 programs that Bush suggested axing because they received PART scores of "ineffective" or "results not demonstrated."

To facilitate the process of cutting wasteful programs, Bush in his 2006 request asked lawmakers to establish two program evaluation commissions: a sunset commission and one that will look for ways to improve interagency coordination.

Meanwhile the White House will continue its efforts to evaluate programs using the PART. OMB plans to have reviewed 80 percent of programs by next year and all major programs in time for the fiscal 2008 budget cycle.

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