Thompson Letter on GPRA - Commerce

Thompson Letter on GPRA - Commerce

August 17, 1999

The Honorable William M. Daley


Department of Commerce

Fourteenth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20230

Dear Secretary Daley:

As you know, the Congress is focused on ensuring that the federal government delivers better results to its citizens and taxpayers. The Congress has enacted a statutory framework to achieve these results. This statutory framework includes the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA); financial management statutes, such as the Chief Financial Officers Act; and information resources management statutes, such as the Clinger-Cohen Act. Each of these reforms aims at achieving more efficient and effective performance throughout the federal government.

As part of our oversight agenda, the Committee has developed information on how effectively the Department of Commerce is using the above statutory tools to improve its performance in several key areas such as becoming more results-oriented and resolving long-standing problems of fraud, waste, and mismanagement. The purpose of this letter is to share with you the information we have developed and obtain your response to certain questions pertaining to it. With this dialog as a start, we hope to work with you on a continuing basis to ensure that the Commerce Department delivers the best possible results for the American people.

Performance plan assessment

The Congress continues to look closely at how well departments and agencies are implementing GPRA. At the request of this Committee and others, GAO recently completed an assessment of the Commerce Department's annual performance plan for fiscal year (FY) 2000. According to GAO, Commerce's FY 2000 plan "represents a moderate improvement" over its FY 1999 plan. GAO indicates that Commerce is working hard to improve its performance planning, but still faces significant challenges.

On the positive side, GAO describes the plan's "reader-friendly" format and presentation as one of its major strengths:

Although Commerce's fiscal year 2000 plan continues to have weaknesses in the three core areas that are key for congressional and executive branch oversight and decision making-annual performance goals and measures, strategies and measures, and performance verification and validation-the plan's overall organization, presentation and reliability, and usefulness has been greatly improved, and it can serve as a framework for improving the content of the Department's future annual performance plans.

Another major strength is that the plan contains results-oriented goals and measures for many key missions. For example, the National Weather Service (NWS) established goals and targeted performance levels that balance the competing priorities of increasing both the lead times and accuracy of severe weather warnings.

However, performance goals are weak in other key areas. For example, the plan's goals in the high-risk area of the 2000 Decennial Census fail to provide a clear picture of intended performance and omit some important performance aspects. Most significantly, the plan's census goals are of little if any value since they are predicated on the use of sampling techniques to address the undercount. Evidently, Commerce did not provide for the contingency of a Supreme Court decision against sampling when preparing its plan. The plan also lacks cost-based performance goals and measures to show how efficiently it operates. Such measures might have included the cost to process a patent or trademark application or issue an export license, or the cost per household to conduct the census.

One key weakness of the plan identified by GAO is that it fails to provide confidence that the Department's performance data will be credible. The absence of reliable performance data threatens to undercut the usefulness of the Department's most results-oriented goals. For example, assessing performance under NWS's goals to improve the timeliness and accuracy of forecasts will be difficult because of reliability problems with the NWS national databases.

Another key weakness of the plan, according to GAO, is the absence of complementary performance goals and measures for the many crosscutting programs and activities in which Commerce shares responsibility with other federal agencies. This shortcoming is particularly serious in view of the fact that Commerce is essentially a "holding company" composed of numerous disparate missions, programs, and activities.

Need to implement audit recommendations on major management problems

One area where there have been too few results is solving major management challenges that seem to persist year after year at most agencies, including the Commerce Department. Commerce is responsible for two problem areas on GAO's high-risk list: the 2000 Decennial Census and NWS modernization.

The 2000 Decennial Census was added to the high-risk list in 1997 in recognition of the many formidable challenges the Census Bureau faces in achieving a cost-effective, accurate, and complete census. Most notably, of course, the Bureau focused its plans exclusively on use of statistical sampling notwithstanding the substantial and long-standing issues over the legality of this approach. As a result, the Supreme Court's January ruling against the Bureau's planned use of statistical sampling for purposes of Congressional reapportionment left it with barely a year's time to change plans and quickly prepare for and implement coverage improvement enhancements to ensure the most accurate count possible without the use of sampling.

The NWS began a nationwide modernization program in the 1980s to upgrade observing systems, such as satellites and radars, and to design and develop advanced forecaster computer workstations. GAO designated NWS modernization as high-risk in 1995, including its four major programs: the Next Generation Weather Radar, the Next Generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, the Automated Surface Observing System, and the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS). These programs collectively cost about $4.5 billion.

As indicated in an enclosure to this letter, Commerce has yet to implement fully two GAO recommendations that address the NWS modernization problem. These recommendations date back to 1994 and 1995, respectively.

According to information provided to the Committee by your Inspector General (IG) and GAO, there are a number of open audit recommendations addressing other major management problems at Commerce as well. An enclosure describes 285 recommendations that your IG has made to address what his office identified as the most serious management problems facing the Department. According to the IG, 166, or 58 percent, of these recommendations have not been fully resolved.

Need for specific performance goals to address major management problems

It is essential that agency heads and other managers commit themselves to tangible steps that will lead to solutions and that agency heads accept accountability for following through on these commitments. One obvious way to do this is to establish specific and measurable goals in your annual GPRA performance plans. Indeed, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance implementing GPRA states:

Performance goals for management problems should be included in the annual plan, particularly for problems whose resolution is mission-critical, or which could potentially impede achievement of program goals . . .

GAO recently evaluated the extent to which Commerce's FY 2000 performance plan contains specific performance goals to address the 10 high-risk and other most serious management problems confronting the Department that GAO and your IG have identified. According to the GAO evaluation, which is detailed in another enclosure, Commerce's plan contains such performance goals for only two of these ten problem areas.

Commerce must do a much better job of addressing major management problems through specific performance goals. Without specific and measurable performance goals, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess progress in addressing major management problems and to hold agencies accountable. In one problem area, financial management, Commerce has a goal to obtain an unqualified audit opinion on its financial statements for FY 1999. This is commendable. The only other area with a specific performance goal is the Decennial Census, where the goal is to reduce the net population undercount to 0.1 percent in 2000. However, given its focus on a sampling approach that proved to be illegal, Commerce is now left with no plan to accomplish this goal. Moreover, the plan lacks any goals to improve the cost-effectiveness of the census.

Congressional follow-up

With so many tax dollars being wasted, this Committee expects agencies to take every opportunity to use the many tools available to them, such as GPRA plans, to resolve major management problems. Furthermore, the GAO and your own IG exist to work in partnership with you to solve longstanding issues of waste, fraud, and abuse.

I hope that the information provided with this letter will stimulate you to make greater use of these tools and resources. In this regard, I ask that you review the enclosed information and respond to the following questions:

  • Do you disagree with any of the GAO or IG recommendations described in the enclosures? If so, what is the basis for your disagreement?
  • Where you agree with the recommendations, what specific actions are you taking to implement each one and how long will it take to complete them?
  • Do you disagree with any of the GAO or IG designations of management problems facing Commerce? If so, which ones and why?
  • Where you agree with the problem designations, are you prepared to establish specific and measurable commitments to address each one of them in your next performance plan?
  • If so, could you outline preliminarily what approach you plan to take for each problem?
  • If you believe that any of these problems do not lend themselves to specific and measurable performance plan goals, please explain why. Please also explain what alternative steps you are taking to solve the problem and to ensure accountability for doing so.

I would appreciate your early attention to this letter. After receiving your response, I will ask Committee staff to arrange a meeting with your representatives to discuss it. My Governmental Affairs Committee staff contact is Robert Shea.


Fred Thompson




Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec