Yes, Obama's Management Agenda Is Different From George W. Bush's

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, walks with former president George W. Bush. U.S. President Barack Obama, right, walks with former president George W. Bush. Evan Vucci/AP

President Obama’s second-term management agenda is more focused on improving government’s proactive effectiveness for businesses and taxpayers compared with his first-term’s emphasis on curbing waste and fraud, an Office of Management and Budget official said Tuesday.

The current White House agenda also contrasts with that of the George W. Bush administration, said Lisa Danzig, OMB’s associate director for performance and personnel management. She portrayed the Bush-era Program Assessment Rating Tool as “top-down and program-level, only a microcosm of performance not deeply infiltrated into agencies.” By contrast, today’s “building blocks” of goals, cross-agency goals and metrics available since passage of the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, Danzig added, make the Obama approach “more focused on broad strategic objectives.”

Danzig was a keynote speaker at the two-day Government Performance summit in Washington organized jointly by the private Performance Institute think tank and the Association of Government Accountants to flesh out how agencies go about “Decoding the Financial and Performance Puzzle.”

The administration’s scheduling of two- and four-year goals and agency strategic plans means that the management agenda is “now aligned with the political” timetable, said Danzig, a former performance officer at the Housing and Urban Development Department. “Senior agency leaders are typically focused on communications, budgets and legislation when they should focus on driving results through improved implementation,” she said, describing executive goal- and-metric review meetings under the new approach as “focused on facts, not typical policy discussion.”

Agencies have until May 17, she added, to hand in their self-assessments on performance toward goals, which will “inform the fiscal 2016 budget.”

As examples of the government’s “big, audacious results” proven possible in the past, Danzig cited the decades-long declines in highway deaths, babies born with AIDS, cigarette smoking and reliance on paper rather than electronics to distribute government benefits. “These problems seemed insurmountable, but the metrics and implementation were done in a relatively short period,” she said, noting HUD’s current goal of ending homelessness as a prospective future success.

“Agencies have a tendency to think about what we can control, so they set up a website and stop there,” Danzig said. “But it is much more powerful to set a goal that is outcomes-based.” Too often in the past, data gathering was “random counting,” she added, likening it to the old joke about a man who lost his keys in a certain area, but looked for them in another area because the lighting was better.

The tools OMB is pressing to foment progress include accelerated structural permitting of the type used after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy in the multi-agency effort to reinforce New York State’s Tappan Zee Bridge, which was accomplished in a year instead of the typical three to five, she said. Data from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is being analyzed in “more granular” detail at OMB, and a dozen more agencies recently signed up for a talent-sharing Web portal in which managers can recruit qualified colleagues from elsewhere in their agency to perform special tasks, Danzig said.

In a separate session, Jon Desenberg, the Performance Institute’s policy director, said “too many of agency performance reports and measures are frozen in time. The new focus is on reviewing and changing, from the static to the dynamic,” he said. “In 10 years, we’d like to see a transformation to a workforce familiar with analytics and a government tapping into those competencies and skill sets.”

Desenberg said he is puzzled that, “with all the fear and shaming that agencies hear from Capitol Hill, no one in Congress appears to want to talk about GPRA.”

Agencies seeking to discuss performance candidly will require a thick skin, speakers agreed, with Desenberg observing that some managers have banned staff reports that are all success stories, even though “no one wants to be seen as the problem person” at meetings.

Eric Benner, performance director in the Office of Nuclear Material Safety at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said he hears whispers from employees saying, “Just get rid of the measures and let us do our job,” and that creating measures is too often done in a “kneejerk” way. But “there is not universal agreement on the best measures” in nuclear safety, be it the number of inspections or the amount of resources committed, he noted. “Performance conversations should be informative, not punitive,” and leadership plays a crucial role in avoiding looking at someone’s struggle to tackle a problem in isolation from external pressures.

Danzig quoted New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton’s dictum that no one in his department “got in trouble if the crime rate went up, but they got in trouble if they didn’t know why it went up and didn’t have a plan to address it.” She recommended that agencies struggling to measure performance not “let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and “celebrate success.” 

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