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Memo to the President: Performance Accountability, Evidence and Improvement

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Flickr user Sonny Abesamis 

How will Donald Trump lead the federal government and drive progress on the priorities he set during his campaign, such as good jobs, clean drinking water and well-served veterans?

Here’s an idea. As he would with the businesses he oversees, Trump should direct every major department, agency and bureau head to set clear goals indicating what they want to accomplish by when, including a few stretch targets in priority areas. Beyond that, he should expect leaders to choose strategies that will speed progress, generate higher returns on taxpayer dollars, and assure government interacts with the public in clear, predictable, timely and courteous ways.

In addition, he should insist that progress on goals is measured and reported in a timely manner, that these measurements and other information are reviewed every quarter to determine whether agency actions are working, and that government move quickly when its actions need adjusting. The president should instruct each government unit to report every quarter on progress, problems and their likely causes, and planned next steps for every priority goal—in ways that make the information easy to find, understand and use.

Sound like a novel notion? In fact, the federal government has been moving in this direction for some time, both in practice and in law. You can see much of this progress on Performance.gov, which depicts performance information for the largest federal departments and agencies. Another helpful website is HealthyPeople.gov, focused on the specific cross-government objective involving human health. For more specific problems, check out the weekly report on veterans benefits and the monthly report about federal retirement claims.

These public reporting and management developments during the Obama administration build on lessons learned and progress made during the Bush administration, when agency strategic and annual plans and reports, along with individual program assessments, were first made available publicly. And before that, during the Clinton administration, performance and management improvements also were reported and celebrated.

As former associate directors for performance and personnel management in the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama and Bush administrations, we looked back at federal government efforts to improve government performance and accountability to identify lessons learned and offer bipartisan recommendations to the next administration. Fuller reflections and recommendations can be found here, but our bottom line lies in six practices—well-known in the private sector and wisely used in some state and local governments—that work remarkably well in the federal government:

  • Set outcome-focused goals, with stretch targets in priority areas.
  • Collect and analyze performance information, both quantitative and qualitative, frequently.
  • Use data-rich reviews to identify what is working well and what needs attention, and decide strategy, action and knowledge gaps to fill.
  • Complement routinely collected data with independent, rigorous evaluations and other studies.
  • Use effective communication strategies for a wide variety of purposes aimed at a diversity of stakeholders.
  • Adopt carefully structured, evidence-based motivational mechanisms that encourage a culture of learning, experimentation and improvement.

If the last practice seems less intuitive than the first five, think about the recent experience with veterans’ health appointment scheduling. Pairing goals and measurement with accountability and motivational mechanisms can lead to a culture of compliance, fear, and even worse, falsification. Unless accountability and motivational mechanisms are well-designed, communicated and embraced, well-intended performance measurement and management initiatives can backfire.

When used wisely, the six performance management practices we have identified here work remarkably well, as the following examples suggest:

Performance management practices don’t always work well, though—especially when the means to accomplish goals are not fully figured out or the resources to accomplish them are inadequate, as with the goal to reduce foodborne Salmonella illnesses.

While some parts of the federal government have embraced performance management, too many have not. Even fewer are integrating these practices and the digital, communication and connectivity developments of the last decade to enable potential increases in the beneficial impact, productivity and accountability of government.

It is time to ramp up these practices to serve the public better, support employee and delivery partner decision-making, strengthen the supply chain and slash costs. To do that, we recommend:

  • Expand Adoption: Push aggressively for adoption of an outcomes-focused performance improvement framework across all of government, expanding quarterly reviews and goal leader designation—now done only at the Cabinet level and for cross-agency priority goals—to component, cross-component and a larger group of cross-agency goals.
  • Visualize and Mobilize: Expand and enhance the collection, analysis, visualization and dissemination of performance information to make it more useful to more people, making greater use of mobile and cloud software and hardware developments and multiple communication channels.
  • Build Capacity: Strengthen the capacity, understanding and skills of chief operating officers, program managers, performance improvement offices, evaluators, planners, budget shops, grant and contract managers, IT offices, data scientists, regional offices and outreach staff to use these practices. Build appreciation, know-how and use among delivery partners and other key groups outside government, including grantees, vendors, those using government services and regulated parties.
  • Broadcast Accountability Expectations: Develop, test, and adopt effective accountability mechanisms that encourage the generation and use of data, analytics and evidence to find smarter ways to do business and improve performance on multiple dimensions, while avoiding an unconstructive shift in attention to target attainment, higher ratings or unfair comparisons.
  • Simplify: Keep it simple to support the use, communication and improvement of performance to accelerate adoption of these practices, using easily understood tools such as the self-help check list we suggest at the end of our fuller set of recommendations.

Common sense, backed by a robust body of knowledge, calls for widespread adoption of these performance improvement and evidence-based management practices. Failure to use them leads to aimlessness, with government and its partners carrying out activities they hope will work without knowing whether they do. It leaves government without the means to inform and encourage continual improvement after effective practices are identified.

The Trump administration has an opportunity to communicate clearly the priorities it will adopt and demonstrate quantifiably the impact its policies have on the American people. It can best do that if it builds on improvements in performance management that have taken hold over the last decade. President Trump will undoubtedly opt for some different goals than President Obama, and choose different levels of ambitiousness in others. Still, if he and his administration leverage the practices we recommend, trust in the federal government and its ability to address some of our greatest challenges will begin to rebuild. That is our bipartisan hope and recommendation for the new year and beyond.

This article is part of a series of Memos to the President, highlighting advice from leading academics and practitioners in public administration for the incoming president and his team. The series was developed by the National Academy of Public Administration, the American Society of Public Administration and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Click here for more information and links to the full set of memos.

Photo: Flickr user Sonny Abesamis 

Robert Shea is a Principal at Grant Thornton Public Sector. He worked at the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as Associate Director for Administration and Government Performance. Before joining OMB, Robert served as Counsel to the United States Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs where, in addition to general oversight of Executive Branch management, he advised Committee leadership on the status of implementation of the U.S. statutory framework for performance-based government, including the Government Performance and Results Act and the Chief Financial Officers Act. He was Legislative Director for Congressman Pete Sessions (TX) from 1997 to 1999, where he organized the Results Caucus, a group of Members of Congress dedicated to results-based management and solving many of the government’s major management problems. Robert was a Professional Staff Member with the House Committee on Government Reform from 1995 through 1996. There he had responsibility for examining the economy and efficiency of government programs, and acted as liaison with the government’s Inspectors General. Robert holds a Juris Doctorate from South Texas College of Law and a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut.

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