Watchdog: The ‘Window’ Into Government Performance Is Pretty Cloudy

Is the Obama administration meeting its own performance goals? There’s no way to know, because the website that’s supposed to track and report progress isn’t doing so in a meaningful way, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office. According to GAO, the Performance.gov website, which is “intended to serve as the public window to the federal government’s goals and performance,” is pretty cloudy.  

The White House has not made clear what it expects to accomplish with Performance.gov, which the administration launched after President Obama signed the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act in 2011, according to GAO. The Office of Management and Budget, in conjunction with the Performance Improvement Council, has not set goals for the goal-tracking website, nor has it tracked compliance with all the items on Digitalgov.gov’s checklist monitoring for federal websites, GAO said.

“Without improving usability and fully implementing GPRAMA requirements,” GAO wrote, “Performance.gov will have difficulty serving its intended purpose as a central website where users can find government-wide performance information easily.”

GAO first identified many of those issues in 2013, but OMB and the council have yet to address them. There is little reporting on the site on the quality of the performance data connected to agencies’ individual priority goals, GAO found, and OMB is still not posting performance targets each quarter for the cross-agency priority goals as required by GPRAMA.

OMB has failed to address site issues identified in a 2013 usability test, in which customers found the purpose of the site unclear, data visualizations hard to find and confusing and the search function faulty. While GAO has instructed OMB to fix those issues to reach a broader audience and help users understand if agencies had actually met goals, the budget office said a lack of funding has prevented the upgrades.

GAO noted OMB plans to increase agencies’ user fees by 4 percent in fiscal 2017 to pay for site maintenance.

The auditors also called on OMB to update the inventory of all federal programs, another GPRAMA requirement, which it has not revised since 2013. GAO found once the site is updated with new data on agency priority goals, there is no way for users to look back and see the results from previous quarters. OMB said it had no plans to create a better archival system, perhaps in violation of federal archiving statutes.

“Without an archive of Performance.gov, users can no longer compare long-term agency priority goals and progress made toward those goals,” GAO wrote. “This affects the website’s transparency.”

GAO also said OMB has no strategic plan for the future of the site. The auditors recommended, among other things, creating a better system for notifying users when new information is posted and integrating a social media strategy into the site’s future.

“Without a plan for the future, OMB will not know what resources it will need or steps it needs to take to ensure all requirements are met and incorporated on Performance.gov,” GAO said. “Such a plan could prove especially valuable in maintaining continuity during the upcoming presidential transition.”

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