GAO coaches lawmakers on maximizing cross-agency performance

The 2010 update to the Government Performance and Results Act presents a "powerful opportunity for agencies to collect and report more timely and useful performance information on crosscutting programs," the Government Accountability Office said in a new report. Members of Congress can effectively use such information in decision-making, as demonstrated in three case studies the auditors provided in the Dec. 9 report.

The law signed by President Obama in January modernized the 1993 GPRA by requiring agencies to commit to an ambitious set of outcome-oriented goals and management priorities, to designate a chief operating officer and a performance improvement officer, and to report results quarterly to the Office of Management and Budget.

GAO, which released a widely noted report in March identifying 34 areas of duplication in federal programs across agencies, this summer interviewed agency and congressional staff on how Congress can best exploit GPRA to "identify the various agencies and federal activities -- including spending programs, regulations and tax expenditures -- that contribute to crosscutting programs and to ensure that coordination mechanisms are in place."

Citing cross-agency functions such as monitoring food safety, providing homeland security, tracking incidences of infectious diseases and improving response to natural disasters, auditors said the case studies would help lawmakers "better understand challenges confronting particular programs and the broader context of how agency performance, budget and financial information fit together."

Agency performance data generated under the new law, GAO said, can inform Congress' "various legislative responsibilities, including when authorizing or reauthorizing federal programs, and other activities; amending the tax code; appropriating funds; and developing budget resolutions. Congress also can focus agency attention on addressing performance issues through myriad activities, such as oversight agendas, hearings, letters to agencies, and formal and informal meetings with agency officials."

The case studies of past oversight in the report cover work over the past decade on reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act; the Defense Department's post-Sept. 11 revamping of the security clearance process; and the Internal Revenue Service's move to encourage electronic tax returns, which save the government money and improve accuracy.

The report was requested by Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, Tom Carper, D-Del., and Mark Warner, D-Va.

Lessons from the case studies, GAO said, include the need to create shared expectations between congressional representatives and agency staff; engage the most relevant agency officials as well as all appropriate congressional bodies (including lawmakers of both parties and chambers) in reviewing program operations; and execute an ongoing consultation process.

Sample questions for lawmakers include asking whether the agency has identified others with similar goals or programs; whether the program plan reflects strategies to coordinate with other agencies; whether the strategies are clearly linked to goals; whether the program reflects the priorities of Congress; and whether recent developments suggest the need for new legislation.

Gary Therkildsen, a federal fiscal policy analyst at the nonprofit OMB Watch, called GAO's recommendations "a good step forward as the executive branch becomes better at keeping tabs as on what it's doing and informing Congress." But he criticized the emphasis on cost-cutting goals. "Obviously we're in a budget-constrained environment, so it's important to talk to each other and get the most bang for the buck," he said. "But just because 30 agencies are looking at food safety doesn't mean that should be cut to 29. I hope it's a constructive process. Congress will have a big positive opportunity to change the way agencies work."

The infrastructure for gauging agency performance is there, Therkildsen added. "It all depends on how well Congress and the public want to use it," he said.

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