Time to Get Cooking on GPRA

Any manager or executive who hasn't yet added the letters G, P, R and A to the alphabet soup of management reforms simmering in his or her organization had better get stirring. The good news is that the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act could be the broth that finally melds the flavors of reform. The bad news is that if your agency hasn't already begun putting GPRA into effect, you may be stewed.

It might seem that GPRA requirements will burn out managers whose brains already are fried from being TQM'd (total quality management) , BPR'd (business process re-engineering), NPR'd (National Performance Review), GMRA'd (Government Management Reform Act), FASA'd (Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act) and who still face being ITMRA'd (Information Technology Management Reform Act). Not to worry: Implemented correctly, GPRA will be a balm not a burden, say the experts. GPRA pros from the Office of Management and Budget, Defense Department, General Accounting Office and National Academy of Public Administration gave a briefing and status report on the law in May at the National Defense University in Washington.

"We don't want GPRA to become a cult separate from other management processes; we want to embed performance management in other practices," said Karen Alderman, director for performance measures and results in the DoD comptroller's office.

All agreed the goal of GPRA is to help, not hinder, program managers. "The purpose is not measurement-the purpose is management at the program level," said Jonathan Breul, special assistant to the OMB deputy director for management.

GPRA is the first management reform not to shy from a direct link with the budget process, said Breul. That means it will eventually force OMB, agency finance staffers and Congress to alter how they track money. The focus will shift away from what a program costs to what it does, he said. At agencies, that means formulating strategies, setting goals, measuring progress toward meeting those goals and reporting on performance internally, to OMB and to congressional appropriators.

Payback for all this heavy lifting will come in the form of OMB waivers and exceptions to administrative requirements, better operations and, ultimately, survival in a time of severe budget pressure. In addition, GPRA could burnish government's battered public image, says Christopher Wye, director of NAPA's program for improving performance. "Performance-based management can connect citizens to government and restore public trust," he said. "GPRA gives agencies a chance to report to the public based on performance goals."

If the carrots don't convince you to climb aboard the GPRA bandwagon, OMB is wielding some sticks. In June, OMB was slated to issue GPRA guidance and take its first look at agency strategic plans. "If you're not doing them now, you'll miss the deadline," Breul warned in May. This fall, OMB will review performance goals for a full GPRA "dry run" it plans as part of the fiscal 1998 budget process. Final strategic plans and goals are due at OMB in September 1997. Luckily for the GPRA-impaired, GAO was set to deliver a guide for managers on how to develop the plans at the end of May, according to Christopher Mihm, assistant director for federal management and workforce issues.

Another 12-Step Program

So how does an organization wrap all its self-improvement efforts into a neat GPRA bundle? A 12-step program, of course. GAO developed one that dovetails with lessons from DoD and other agencies running GPRA pilot programs. Like all 12-step programs, it requires unflinching self-assessment, rigorous honesty and hard work. "If an agency says 'GPRA has not caused a lot of changes in how we do business,' or 'We've been doing GPRA for years,' we know there's a problem," Mihm said. "The organizations most advanced in GPRA say, 'It is turning us upside down.' "

One of the toughest GPRA-induced tasks is developing an agency mission and goals, he said. Congress failed to clearly lay out just what it had in mind when it chartered most of today's departments after merging a number of smaller agencies into many of them. GAO advises early, ongoing, collegial communication with stakeholders in drafting strategic plans and goals. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency used strategic planning to overcome its lack of a focused legislative mission statement, Mihm said. The agency drafted nine goals and discussed them with business and environmental groups and others around the country. As a result, no one could claim they were cut out of the process, and EPA had a chance to educate stakeholders about the crosscutting demands they place on EPA employees.

Agencies also must scope out external forces likely to affect their success. The Customs Service, for example, is facing a 242 percent increase in imports between 1986 and 1995, a shrinking budget and the imminent retirement of many staffers. These factors led Customs to reorganize, moving people and resources out of Washington into facilities closer to ports.

Even with a strong mission and goals, measuring performance can become a meaningless, sterile statistical exercise if agencies aren't careful, Mihm said. Stick to the vital few measures the next organizational level needs to have confidence your program is well run and to make decisions about it, he advised. Make sure there is a direct cause-and-effect link between what the organization does and something good happening outside it. Mihm pointed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as an example of how a few carefully selected measures can have powerful results. NOAA used to measure weather service success by numbers of satellites launched or forecasts issued. Then it altered its measures to reflect quality instead of quantity. Now warning time for tornadoes is up from seven to nine minutes and the weather service more precisely predicts landfall of hurricanes.

Once agencies settle on a mission statement, goals and measures, they must report and use the performance information they gather. Report carefully, Mihm cautioned. Don't repeat the mistake of the Customs Service, which noted the success of its drug interdiction program by reporting a drop in the number of drug-ferrying planes it intercepted without explaining that falling numbers meant success. Do benchmark performance results. After Veterans Affairs medical centers compared themselves to community hospitals, they increased the rate at which they immunize patients against pneumonia and reduced deaths related to cardiac bypass surgery, Mihm said.

All the plans, goals and measures in the world will come to naught if agencies fail to train and empower managers, create incentives to promote change and incorporate performance-based management into daily practice. This sort of cultural change can happen only if senior leaders are active in agencies and Congress, the speakers said. Department and agency heads have come around in the last year, but legislators still lag in understanding GPRA and their role in getting it rolling, Wye said.

Fortunately, Mihm said, House and Senate leaders recently have become very interested in GPRA, and in June, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee were to hold their second joint hearing on GPRA implementation. Agencies have a big stake in making sure legislators understand performance measures, since Members of Congress will use the information to decide on funding. "Yes, there are going to be some arbitrary and harsh judgments made," said Bruel. "Hopefully we are going to combat that with information about what you can conclude and what you can't."

Ask Better Questions

If politicians learn the right lessons, performance-based governing might even help the nation get its priorities straight. Right now, nobody in government is anxious to be explicit about performance expectations, because the cost of failure is high. But once agencies set clear missions and report their progress in achieving them, politicians will have more options. "If a program succeeds, maybe we'll stop it and declare success or maybe we'll fund it more. If it fails, maybe we screwed it up or maybe we underinvested," Breul said. GPRA may lead to more questions than it answers, but they are far better questions than the ones we're asking now.

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