President’s Data Boosters Push Management Agenda

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Strategic sourcing and the embedding of data-driven decisions within agencies are proceeding apace under President Obama’s management agenda, the effort’s impresarios said on Thursday.

As the host agency for the gathering of program benchmarking data, the General Services Administration is working to make the multi-agency “enterprise a single powerful entity” by serving as a “boiler-room for making government more efficient,” GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini told a conference of the National Academy of Public Administration meeting in Arlington, Va.

A string of recent meetings with councils of chief operating, financial and information officers, he said, have shown that agencies are focused on “seeing who is most efficient at getting things done using evidence and data” while sharing information on program performance. The past mistake in promoting strategic sourcing, or services shared among agencies based on comparing data on prices and results, he added, “was assuming that all would flow down, when the trick is getting it to flow up” from the agencies themselves.

Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, agreed that improving functions such as delivery of information technology services “can’t all happen at OMB. It’s got to actually happen in the agencies, and if you give other agencies better data, those agencies will get better results.”

Cobert’s private-sector experience, she said, taught her that worrying over “plumbing” details such as collecting data from operations is often unglamorous, hard work. “But we have to accept that when we move to strategic sourcing, it’s a different business process, and you have to stick at it on the detailed level” in order to move beyond old habits.

Stressing the value of transparent reporting on performance ratings, Cobert said agencies must switch to a new data “mindset” in an age of Yelp, Travelocity and Angie’s List, “in which people trust their anonymous neighbors’ point of view. But we must be careful because data can be over-read,” she added. “We must work on it until it’s reliable and fact-based. We must understand the metrics before its ready for prime-time.”

As an example of careful use of data, she cited the Transportation Security Administration’s successful pre-Check program to speed pre-screened passengers through airport security. “TSA hit the trifecta—better risk management, efficiency and happy customers. But TSA’s main goal is to make sure people get on that plane safely,” she said. “That’s different from how you like your morning coffee.”

Tangherlini gently mocked agencies for thinking each is “special, like beautiful snowflakes, or your own children,” when in fact “they aren’t vastly different,” he said. All use Title 5 of the U.S. Code for human resources and the Federal Acquisition Regulation, and the same laws for financial operations, he said.

Both officials avoided criticizing Congress. Cobert said OMB consults with lawmakers before setting the Cross-Agency Priority goals required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, which is “not tightly prescriptive,” she said. “Much of what we talk about can be done administratively, and is nonpartisan, like better spending of IT dollars.”

Tangherlini said he’d leave to Congress the “fights over cutting programs. But there’s not a single person in Congress not interested in better information and reduced costs,” he said. “So these solutions should give Congress more flexibility to exercise Article 1, its power of the purse. It’s striking how many decision makers rely on anecdotes, experience or assumptions, on little that is evidence-based.”

Both officials were asked what they would like to leave in place for their successors. Cobert spoke of “a process and change that actually is useful and viewed as valuable, so they will want to stick with it.”

Tangherlini said in the future, “no one will run for office on making government inefficient and with less information. So it’s nonpartisan, management 101” to invest in an evidence-driven process “built to last as a tool that civil servants will find useful.“

Declaring how “cool” it is that an international team of space scientists this week landed a vehicle on a faraway comet, Tangherlini said, “I’d like the future to see that government can be successful using evidence beyond the world we’re sitting in now.”

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