Survey indicates dissatisfaction with government management

Nearly 90 percent of Americans believe the federal government does a poor job spending taxpayer dollars and managing its programs efficiently, according to a new online survey.

The results of the "America Inc." survey, conducted in August by Primavera Systems, a software firm based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., and O'Keefe & Co., a marketing and communications firm based in Alexandria, Va., also indicate a difference between the public's and federal managers' perceptions of the government's performance.

The survey asked 677 members of the public about the government's overall management efficiency and steps for improvement. The survey posed a number of more narrowly focused questions to 151 federal managers from across government and throughout the country. The public section had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent while the federal manager component had a margin of plus or minus 8 percent.

By and large, the public gave government failing grades for management efficiency and fiscal responsibility. The questionnaire asked if recipients were satisfied with government's management practices and spending habits. Eighty-nine percent offered a grade of C, D or F.

Among those expressing the least satisfaction with performance were retirees, citizens with at least a high school diploma and those who identified themselves as politically independent.

And, it appears Americans are even less satisfied with oversight of federal contractors. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed said they "do not believe or are unsure if the federal government appropriately manages and gets the best value out of private-sector contractors."

Respondents said that to change this perception, the government should hold contractors more accountable for successes or failures, better explain how contracts are awarded and require contractors to deliver clear and consistent progress reports.

Meanwhile, roughly two-thirds said they are confused about how the government spends its money. A majority said they would like to see greater transparency, more accountability and standardized management practices to compare efficiency among agencies.

Part of the problem may stem from a lack of understanding of the President's Management Agenda. Just 10 percent of respondents said they understood the administration's directive to improve management efficiency through a traffic light-style score card that grades agencies in five main performance categories.

The Office of Management and Budget, which administers the management agenda, did not return a call for comment.

Those working inside the government had a slightly different take on the efficiency of federal management systems. Eighty percent of federal managers surveyed said their system as a whole met or exceeded basic requirements while more than 60 percent said their agency did not need program management reform.

But when the questions focused on specific objectives and successes, the results were far less rosy. Nearly 70 percent of federal managers said that only one in five projects are completed on time and on budget, while 75 percent said their agency lacks a standardized project management system.

"As a whole, everything seems OK, but the devil is in the details," said Margo Visitacion, an industry marketing manager for Primavera Systems. "When you drill down, you can see where there might be some challenges."

On a personal level, federal managers don't appear to be particularly happy with their workplace environment. More than 70 percent reported that their agency does an inadequate job recognizing their accomplishments while 60 percent said they spend more than half their day working on projects without measurable goals.

The survey indicated that many of the problems may stem from an outdated and inefficient management system.

One out of four federal managers said they cannot easily access a complete and current database of agencywide investments. Only 15 percent said they have regular access to data needed to meet the regulatory requirements of the Federal Information Management Security Act or the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act.

To rectify their grievances, more than half of the surveyed managers suggested that their agency enact a standardized project management system; 42 percent wanted to move away from a spreadsheet management approach; and 40 percent said they believed agencies should deploy standardized systems for reporting and tracking project updates and changes.

The survey concluded that federal managers should view these results as an opportunity to develop a standardized and more effective management infrastructure.

"But you have to eat the elephant one bite at a time," Visitacion said. "So, [federal managers] can start by developing consistent practices that will help them manage programs one by one."

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