A Glass Half Full

Despite long-standing challenges when it comes to measuring program performance, agencies are making progress and laying a long-term foundation.

In a recent progress report on implementing new Government Performance and Results Act requirements, the Government Accountability Office says the executive branch needs improvement. But there’s reason for optimism. A sub-theme in the report describes how agencies are actually building a long-term, solid foundation for a performance-driven government.

Media stories on the report have highlighted several long-standing challenges in implementing the 2010 GPRA Modernization Act, but I decided to dig a bit deeper. After all, I used to work at GAO and know that there is often a more subtle message buried by analysts in the footnotes and special appendices. Here are some of the highlights.

Knowledge of Priorities

More federal managers than ever before report that they know about their agency priorities and goals to a great extent:

- 82 percent were familiar with the priority goals that agencies are required to set under law.

- 58 percent were familiar with cross-agency priority goals.

- 44 percent say their agency’s designated priority goals actually reflect what they understand to be the top priorities of their agency. 

- 33 percent were familiar with their department’s quarterly performance review efforts.

In contrast, GAO reported in 2007 that only 23 percent of managers were familiar with the Office of Management and Budget’s Program Assessment Rating Tool and of those managers, only 26 percent said PART was useful in decision-
making. Of those who were familiar with PART, 37 percent reported that upper management paid attention to
achieving results.

Use of Performance Data 

“Overall, our periodic surveys of federal managers since 1997 indicate that with the few exceptions . . . the use of performance information has not changed significantly at the governmentwide level,” the GAO report concludes. While that observation is true for changing work processes, setting program priorities and allocating resources, the report goes on to describe some new and encouraging trends. The survey of managers shows significant increases in the use of performance information to: 

- Identify program problems to be addressed (55 percent)

- Take corrective action to solve program problems (54 percent)

- Develop program strategy
(49 percent)

This seems to suggest that the new GPRA Modernization Act requirements to identify key priorities and conduct at least quarterly reviews of their progress are being implemented and making a difference.

Leadership Commitment

GAO reports: “The only statistically significant change from 2007 to 2013 was a decline in the percent of managers that agreed . . . that their agencies’ top leadership demonstrates a strong commitment to achieving results, from 67 percent to 60 percent.” While this seems like backsliding, the report contains an important observation. The 2013 survey found that one-third of managers were familiar with their agency’s quarterly performance reviews. And for those who were familiar, 76 percent saw their agency’s top leadership as committed to using performance information to guide decision-making. This is probably the highest level of awareness that leaders were using performance information reported in any of the surveys.

Measuring Performance

“Our work over the last 20 years has identified difficulties agencies face in measuring performance across different program types, such as regulations and grants,” GAO concludes. While the report describes a series of areas where agencies have faced such difficulties, it notes “some progress has been made in developing performance measures and using the resulting performance information.” 

GAO’s progress report offers two sets of conclusions, and which gets emphasis depends on the reader:

Glass Half Empty: “The executive branch has made little progress addressing long-standing governance challenges related to improving coordination and collaboration to address crosscutting issues, using performance information to drive decision-making, measuring the performance of certain types of federal programs, and engaging Congress in a meaningful way.”

Glass Half Full: “The executive branch has taken a number of important steps to implement key provisions of the act, by developing interim [cross-agency priority] goals and [agency priority goals], conducting quarterly reviews, assigning key performance management roles and responsibilities, and communicating results more frequently and transparently through”

The key story that stands out for me is that agency managers see the conceptual framework of the GPRA Modernization Act and the actual use of its provisions—such as priority-setting and data-driven progress reviews—as effective. 

The next step for agencies probably should be to expand their use of these review forums beyond headquarters, replicate them in their bureaus and the field, and tell employees about the reviews and their results. At that point, many of the other challenges GAO has highlighted for years can finally be overcome.

John M. Kamensky is a senior research fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

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