Senior agency leaders focus on measuring success of their programs

In keeping with what the Obama administration sees as a high priority, officials at the Labor, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs departments are making program and performance evaluation a key focus in their strategic planning. Agencies already have been working hard narrow down their top objectives -- like the Agriculture Department's push to ensure all children in America have access to safe and nutritious meals -- and now they are tackling the even more difficult task of determining how to measure success.

Well into the process of submitting high-priority performance goals to the Office of Management and Budget, senior officials say they are identifying their program objectives and designing ways to evaluate progress toward those outcomes.

"A very, very high priority at OMB is evaluation, and it's a very high priority at the Labor Department as well," Labor Deputy Secretary Seth Harris said at a breakfast hosted by Government Executive in Washington on Wednesday. "We have put a tremendous emphasis on building up, bulking up, our evaluation systems both inside the Employment and Training Administration and also departmentwide."

Labor will create a new position -- chief evaluation officer -- and a corresponding office within the policy office. The chief evaluation officer will develop a strategic approach that ties together the diverse goals and priorities of the department's many agencies and offices.

"We're doing one-off evaluations that don't necessarily lead to each other right now, that don't have a plan," Harris said. "Now we're going to have a plan; we're going to have folks that design evaluations to give us a system of continuous improvement."

At Agriculture, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan's staff aims to establish metrics that can accurately measure success and to make sure each metric involves multiple agencies and mission areas.

"We're trying to break out of the silos," Merrigan told forum participants.

Establishing metrics has always been a tricky undertaking for agencies, she acknowledged, because people know they will be held accountable by the very metrics they're developing. This has led to extremely narrow, technical metrics that don't pass what Merrigan calls the elevator test.

"If someone says, 'What's important?' you need to be able to explain that to the person in the elevator, so they understand by the time the ride's over … that's part of the challenge," she said.

Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould said the elevator test applies to budgetary questions as well as metrics.

"There are three basic questions when you go see an appropriator -- what are you buying, how much does it cost and what do I get for it," he said. "If you can't answer that question in 30 seconds, it's on to the next line item."

Gould, Merrigan and Harris all anticipate the budget environment will be increasingly Spartan in the coming years, making program evaluation even more important.

"I would expect that funding going forward is going to be very tightly focused, particularly on projects that are going to produce designated outcomes," Harris said. "The direct linkage of funding to particular outcomes, particular priorities, is ultimately as a tactical matter going to be the most effective way to go to the White House and make the case for additional money. I think it also makes it an easier sales pitch to the American people."

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