OMB plans top-level pressure to move agencies out of 'red'

White House pressure-including pressure from the chief executive himself-will prod agencies to step up progress on the five items of the Bush administration's management agenda over the next 13 months, according to Clay Johnson, nominee to be deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

In a May 22 speech to a group of federal managers, Johnson outlined his view that most agencies now believe in the management agenda, and are on track to achieve substantial gains by July 1, 2004, when OMB hopes most agencies will no longer be at "red," or failing, on the administration's traffic light-style management scorecard.

"The management agenda has taken hold and not just with the political [appointees]," he told managers at a Washington conference held by the National Academy of Public Administration. "I get a lot of anecdotal evidence [of] the career employees, many of whom have been with their agencies 15, 20, 25 years, being able to see how this is so very good for the functioning of their agency."

But if progress slows, Johnson believes the traffic light ratings-and the stigma associated with a "red" rating inside the Bush administration-will motivate agencies to take action. He said President Bush regularly asks department heads about their progress on the agenda during Cabinet meetings, and agencies are loath to report little activity.

"He asks, without prompting, I noticed that you're still at red. And [department heads] don't like to hear that. So that is a very not-to-be-underestimated motivation for these agencies."

Agencies have ample room for progress. Of the 26 agencies graded on the scorecard, only the National Science Foundation has earned "green," or top marks in any of the five areas. The agency has received green ratings in financial management and e-government. But even the NSF has a red mark-on competitive sourcing-because the agency has done little on that initiative to date. "Progress in competitive sourcing was downgraded because the agency has still not committed to competing any of its commercial positions, and has not developed a competitive sourcing plan," said the administration's fiscal 2004 budget proposal.

Johnson said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card initially was surprised to learn that OMB planned to publish the scorecard ratings-which publicly criticize some agencies-but OMB Director Mitch Daniels and former OMB management chief Mark Everson explained that the scorecard would goad agencies into action. "They said, well yes, that's kind of the way it's going to work. But that's the point. Nobody likes to be red," said Johnson.

OMB is planning to pressure agencies to move programs off of the General Accounting Office's "high-risk" list of management challenges as well. Over the past few weeks, OMB officials have met with their counterparts at GAO to determine what it would take to make progress on the 25 "high-risk" items, and to eventually move programs off the list. And in an exercise that mirrors OMB's "Proud to Be" review, which sets July 1, 2004, as a deadline for making targeted improvements on the five management agenda items, OMB and the agencies have set July 1, 2004, as a target date for making progress on "high-risk" items as well.

"The goal is not to get off the high-risk list in July 1, 2004, but … to make sure they are committing amongst themselves and with us to progress this far down the pike," Johnson said after his speech.

George Stalkup, a GAO official who has met with OMB staffers, said Johnson's initiative is the most "focused and aggressive" effort by OMB to date to make progress on the high-risk items.

Other observers were struck by OMB's effort to move items off GAO's high-risk list, which they saw as a first. "OMB in particular has never in my recollection publicly acknowledged or embraced GAO's high-risk list, and for an official document to acknowledge the high-risk list, let alone have a meeting to talk about how to demonstrate progress on it is, I think, a huge step," said Donald Kettl, a professor of public affairs and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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