Experts sound off on ways to improve government management

Improving agency performance in the federal government is a difficult, long-term process, but it can be done, according to a panel of experts who gathered Friday to discuss President Bush’s management agenda.

Improving agency performance in the federal government is a difficult, long-term process, but it can be done, according to a panel of experts who gathered Friday morning at the National Press Club in Washington to discuss President Bush's management agenda. In August, the Bush administration proposed a plan for management reform in five areas: strategic management of human capital; expanded electronic government; competitive sourcing; improved financial performance; and budget and performance integration. Soon, the Bush administration will release its 2003 budget proposal, which will include Executive Branch Management Scorecards. Agencies will receive scores in each of the five management areas. Friday's discussion, sponsored by the Reason Public Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, focused on the barriers to achieving the President's management agenda and improving overall performance in the federal government. Panelists, who included current and former government officials, found no shortage of barriers, beginning with the difficulty in identifying outcome measures for some agencies. Measuring success is difficult when it's unclear how to set performance targets, one panelist said. "There's no consensus on what good performance is and how to measure it," said Nancy Potok, principal associate director and chief financial officer at the Census Bureau. Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Policy Implementation at American University, suggested tracking customer satisfaction as a way to craft performance measures. "The best agencies gather data and use it," Tobias said. Industry Advisory Council Executive Director Alan Balutis went a step further and recommended more use of performance contracts linking senior management to agencies for a set term, which would increase continuity at the senior levels of government. "Good leadership is key," agreed Chris Mihm, associate director for federal management and workforce issues at the General Accounting Office, adding that there may not be a need for management and performance statutes in every area of the government. According to former Office of Personnel Management Director Janice Lachance, succession and human capital planning need to be addressed for the long-term, instead of in a piecemeal fashion. "You need to have the right people in the right job," she said. Administrators are afraid of putting more money into compensating employees, Lachance said, adding that human resource staffers are considered support staff, when they should be sitting at the planning table along with agency leaders. John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, and former director of policy and evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board, advocated more prudent recruiting. " We don't need more money, we just need to use the money we have wisely. Salaries should be market-sensitive," he said. When recruiting, agencies should play to their strengths, highlight important projects that are under way, and try not to focus on restrictions in pay and promotions, Palguta said. "We've got success stories," Palguta said. "Expand best practices and give more agencies some of these hiring flexibilities such as bonuses, relocation costs and loan forgiveness." As the discussion wrapped up, most of the panelists agreed that good agency management and human capital management could be achieved with tools already available to federal managers. "We lean too much on legislation as a crutch for solving what the executive branch already has in its capacity to do," said Dwight Ink, a fellow with the National Academy of Public Administration. "I think when we find the enemy, we'll find it's us."