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Report Reveals Heights and Depths of Federal Agency Performance - From Blue Skies at National Weather Service to Trail of Trouble at Bureau of Indian Affairs
Washington, D.C.- TAX DAY - Focusing national attention on federal government management challenges and the need for taxpayer accountability, Government Executive magazine, and The George Washington University Department of Public Administration today released the "Federal Performance Report," the third in a series of annual studies of the federal agencies that interact most often with Americans. The hard-hitting, 114-page report assigned seven federal agencies grades from A to D. The D grade for the Bureau of Indian Affairs is the lowest assigned by the Federal Performance Project, which now has graded 27 federal agencies. Conversely, the National Weather Service, which received an overall grade of A, joins only two other agencies (the Social Security Administration and the United States Coast Guard) receiving top grades from the project.
"There can be little doubt that the American public holds the federal government in low regard - especially on tax day," said Timothy B. Clark, editor, Government Executive. "In some instances, there are good reasons, and Lord knows the popular media certainly feed the image of bureaucrats as bumblers and crooks. But here, we're offering a detailed look inside agencies, reporting on their strengths as well as their weaknesses. And where there is failure, we're finding that Congress often is to blame for assigning conflicting missions, or cutting corners on resources needed to get the job done.
"To be sure, some agencies have themselves to blame as well. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, for example, is afflicted with intractable problems of such long standing as to defy any attempts at the quick fix."
The Federal Performance Project, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, joins scholars and journalists to assess federal agencies and assign grades for management of finances, information, human resources and physical assets, as well as managing for results. Agencies' overall grades were based 50 percent on managing for results and 50 percent on the other four areas.
The seven agencies graded this year are:
National Weather Service A
Assigning As in every category, the report recognizes NWS with its highest grade for 2001. The analysis highlights the organization's results-focused management, which is achieving real traction in coordinating operations throughout and across functions to achieve mission success. It lauds the results of the organization's 10-year, $4.5 billion new technology overhaul dedicated to improving forecasts and productivity.
United States Postal Service A-
Recognizing that USPS is operating in turbulent times, the report lauds management focused on results and impressive coordination across the agency, but highlights the challenges posed by serious weaknesses in human resources and communications. Despite the fact that USPS is required to break even, it lost almost $200 million in fiscal year 2000 and is in danger of losing some $2 billion in fiscal year 2001, a reflection of its lack of control over the most basic levers by which private-sector companies balance costs and revenues.
Administration for Children and Families B
ACF receives strong marks for its service ethos and efforts to rise to the challenge of managing for results in a devolved, welfare reform environment. The agency faces staffing challenges that could pose significant problems if it fails to realize operational improvements its performance also is hobbled by unreliable data.
The agency's strong "can-do" culture and technical excellence is marred by weakness in mission definition and measurement of outcomes as well as significant problems in contract management. What's more, a decade of downsizing and budget tightening has left NASA to explore the universe with less experienced staff and aging equipment.
Bureau of Consular Affairs C
The bureau benefits from inspired leadership and increased funding, but lacks systematic practices required to sustain and build management improvement momentum. Its budget soon may be tightened as Congress has capped the amount of revenue the bureau can keep from fees. Without a proper planning process, the bureau will have a tough time convincing Congress that it needs more money.
Forest Service C
The Forest Service is hampered by conflicting missions and decentralized systems that create systemic weakness and limit accountability. The report notes that management is committed to addressing these issues and is implementing a new financial and accounting system to upgrade its data control and management capabilities. The Forest Service also is in the thick of a national debate over how federal land should be managed.
Bureau of Indian Affairs D
The agency exhibits long-standing management deficiencies, but improvements are difficult and slow in its high-pressure, resource-constrained environment. The agency is in touch with its problems, but solutions are unlikely without increased funding and attention from Congress and the administration. Agency officials note that BIA is trapped in a catch-22 situation - Congress requires a demonstration of management improvement to increase funding, however, without proper funding the agency lacks the infrastructure to enhance its management capabilities.
Moving beyond simple finger pointing, the Federal Performance Report works to explain the many countervailing demands and challenges that result in poor management or performance that falls short. The project team strives to conduct fair evaluations of agencies, relying on surveys filled out by the agencies, views of agency managers, public documents, and feature stories based on an average of 60 interviews per agency with employees and managers, external observers and evaluators, congressional staff, and agency clients, customers, contractors and consultants.
"The multiple demands and expectations that confront many public sector organizations make them much more difficult to manage than their private sector counterparts" said Prof. Philip Joyce, George Washington University's principal investigator for the project. "Given this, it is nothing short of remarkable that we have found so many examples of good management within these agencies."
- As the Army Corps of Engineers (2000 grade B) recovers from a year of bad publicity, it shows improvement in employee relations and empowerment, but is tarnished by an Army inspector general's finding that top officials rigged data in the project's cost-benefit analysis and that the agency is biased toward large-scale construction projects.
- The Coast Guard, the only agency awarded an A grade in 2000, negotiated a $4.6 billion fiscal 2001 budget - up $594 million from fiscal 2000. However, the agency's responsibilities still outpace its budget.
- The National Park Service (2000 grade C) is improving its budgeting and tying funding directly to needed services. It also is slated by the Bush administration for a much-needed boost in maintenance funding. However, the report spotlights park managers' lack of accountability for results, noting that there still is much room for improvement in concession management.
- The Office of Student Financial Assistance (2000 grade C) received praise for system upgrades that empowered the agency to accelerate student aid application turnaround - now achieved in seven days. Additionally, the agency scored well in improving employee satisfaction. However, SFA did not receive a clean financial audit.
- The Veterans Benefits Administration (2000 grade B-) showed strong progress in employee relations and the agency received a clean financial audit from GAO. However, VBA still is hindered by slow claims processing, exacerbated by an influx of new rules and regulations.
The Federal Performance Project seeks to identify factors that contribute to effective management performance in government, illuminate the challenges of federal management, enable agencies and government to learn from successful practices and failures, create an information clearinghouse about federal management practices, and to recognize agencies that are improving their management systems.
About the Federal Performance Project
Established in 1996, the Federal Performance Project is the only annual effort to assess the effectiveness of federal government management. The project is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and executed by Government Executive in collaboration with The George Washington University Department of Public Administration. In 1999, the FGPP reported on 15 Federal agencies. In 2000, the project reported on five new agencies and revisited five from the previous year. The Federal Performance Report is available online at www.govexec.com/fpp
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