Federal program reviews are superficial, Hill and agency veterans say

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The federal government has become “very top-down” in its management style and uses data and expertise more to confirm leaders’ preplanned policies than to design “intelligent” ones, a new report says.

A summary of interviews set for release Thursday by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress concludes that agency budget cuts and clashing objectives between Congress and the executive branch in recent years have produced a budgetary system that is dysfunctional. “The failure of the executive branch to identify and provide useful program information, and the failure of Congress to force a more thoughtful and deliberate process within the executive branch, seriously undercuts the integrity and effectiveness of the entire budgetary process,” said the report, titled “Broken Budgeting: A View of Federal Budget Making From the Trenches.” Government Executive was given an advance copy.

Harsh, primarily anonymous comments from some 32 high-level veterans of agencies, Capitol Hill and the Office of Management and Budget portray a “system by which government makes decisions on resource allocation [that] has seriously deteriorated over the past decade or so,” the report said.

The interviews were conducted primarily in 2010 by Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the center who spent 31 years as a House staff member, including a stint as executive director of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, and by co-author Eleanor Hill, a partner at the law firm of King & Spalding who previously was Defense Department inspector general and a staff director or counsel for several special House-Senate panels.

A budget director for one department said his planning and evaluation staff had been “whittled away by budget cuts” so that little was known about the performance and effectiveness of programs. He also complained of “onerous and useless data reporting requirements that consumed the time of the small staff” remaining.

A current senior Pentagon official said, “we do make an incredible number of decisions based on a frighteningly small amount of information, two lines on a PowerPoint, and some of these things can be large, hundreds of millions even.” A veteran of defense budgeting both at OMB and Capitol Hill said, “analysis simply goes out the window. [Former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [his] crowd totally broke down the Planning Programming and Budgeting System so that it became dysfunctional. Everything was ad hoc.”

OMB staffers were criticized by the chief budget officer at one department as “bright people -- but superficial. They don’t understand programs like they should. They have become more difficult to deal with. They have very little expertise but want to tell us what to do.”

Congress comes across as too focused on fundraising and the pursuit of earmarks while presiding over a budget process that is rushed, chaotic and partisan. “If an agency knows that the members have the time and staff has the time to dig into their operations, they’re going to be a little bit more responsive,” a former staffer said. “Now they don’t have to be. Members have no time to dig in. . . . [they are not focused] on niceties of program performance when busy wrestling alligators.”

Much detail on programs gets lost, the analysts wrote: “While the budget justifications sent to Congress in support of department and agency spending requests have become far more voluminous, they for the most part contain less and less useful information.”

The report faults OMB under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations for pursuing efficiencies without tapping the knowledge of front-line employees in the manner of management reform gurus W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker. “Promoters of business practices in government had not walked the federal government’s equivalent of the plant floor and sought the advice of its production worker,” the authors wrote.

The report explores the difficulties in evaluating such programs as Head Start or the effectiveness of the Border Patrol in a world where performance data are harder to come by than “output data” -- how many beneficiaries are enrolled, for example -- which produce objective data points, but are only a proxy measure of program effectiveness.

Most of the interviews were conducted before final enactment of the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, signed by President Obama in January 2011, which imposes new performance data information requirements on agencies.

Asked what might have changed in the interim, Lilly told Government Executive: “There has been improvement but it is hard to say how much. OMB told me they are modifying some of the reporting requirements and there may be some improvement in the quality of the agency justifications, but certainly nothing compared to what is needed. Congress has had more time to do oversight, and there is evidence that they have used it appropriately in at least some instances. But there needs to be significant culture change in both branches. That will take not only determination but time.”

CAP is planning a second paper that will offer solutions.

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