OMB finds performance of federal programs improving

More than three-quarters of federal programs assessed by the Bush administration for management and effectiveness are performing at least adequately, new data indicates.

On Wednesday, the Office of Management and Budget released the results of its sixth annual Program Assessment Rating Tool evaluations. The agency looked at 48 programs for the first time, with 77 percent receiving grades of effective, moderately effective or adequate.

OMB also reevaluated 73 programs, including 30 that originally received grades of ineffective or results not demonstrated, the latter indicating a lack of meaningful data or performance goals. Of those programs, more than 93 percent are now ranked as having an adequate or better performance.

Overall, OMB has evaluated 1,016 programs -- accounting for $2.6 trillion in federal spending -- finding that 78 percent are operating at least somewhat effectively. Those figures represent a 3 percent uptick from last year.

Typically OMB releases the results of program assessments along with its budget request in early February. But the administration released the evaluations early this year to get a head start on the process.

The latest data shows the majority of all programs (60 percent) falling somewhere in the middle of the pack, performing well enough but leaving significant room for advancement.

"We've made great progress, but there is still a lot of room for improvement," said Robert Shea, OMB's associate director for management.

Shea attributed the improvements primarily to programs adopting acceptable performance measures and gathering more baseline data.

Nonetheless, 30 percent of programs still are not achieving self-imposed efficiency measures such as timeliness, customer satisfaction and cost per unit, and 25 percent are not meeting their long-term goals, the assessments indicate.

But while most programs are not completely turning around failed operations, there are notable exceptions.

When first evaluated in 2003, the Office of National Drug Control Policy's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program was heavily criticized for a lack of accountability from managers and program partners. A reevaluation this year found the program had implemented a system for tracking and analyzing performance data, indicating that it was helping to dismantle more drug trafficking organizations and for less money.

The PART ratings are determined through agency answers to 25 standard questions detailing the program's performance, management and design. OMB assigns a point to each answer and the accumulated score represents the final grade. Program managers can appeal their grade. This year, 45 such appeals were filed, with a third upheld.

The assessments are a significant tool for the administration when making funding decisions for individual programs. President Bush has used the rating tool, in part, to justify cuts in his annual budget requests to Congress. Administration officials note that the rankings are not the only consideration in determining if a program should be cut or eliminated.

"While never the only factor in decisions about program budgets, performance should be an increasingly important factor," said Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management.

Shea noted that the data has its limitations, particularly in the area of policy-making. "You can't just plug it in and automatically balance the budget," he explained. "You need to make sure that expectations are reasonable."

Critics, however, contend that the PART evaluations have a potential for bias and political influence and would benefit from greater independent oversight. Shea said he would not be opposed to the Government Accountability Office reviewing the data if it would provide greater accuracy and transparency.

"This is the most comprehensive assessment of government performance ever performed, anywhere," Shea said.

The programs in the 2 percent that have yet to be evaluated are either small efforts that have been granted exemptions because of staff limitations or Defense Department programs that take significantly longer to review. Programs accounting for roughly $57 billion, or 12 percent, of Defense's budget need to be evaluated, with those scores expected in 2008, OMB officials said.

The public can view the PART evaluations at www.Expectmore.gov. A new option allows citizens to search through the rankings of all programs for an entire agency. The tool provides viewers with a cumulative look at how the successes or failures of individual programs fit into an agency's overall performance.

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