Managers share frustrations over linking performance, budgets

At a town-hall style forum Tuesday, federal managers said they support the notion of linking agencies' budgets to their ability to meet performance goals, but think the current process is badly flawed.

The forum, hosted by the Performance Institute, an Arlington-based think tank, allowed federal managers to share stories of progress in linking performance to budgets, one of five management initiatives outlined in the president's management agenda. But participants in the discussion, who spoke on condition of anonymity, spent much of the session addressing the challenges they have faced in measuring their agencies' success. They also discussed ways the administration could help them overcome these challenges.

Managers said they would like the Office of Management and Budget to give them better guidance on how to measure performance accurately. One participant said she would like to see OMB hold up more models of agencies that had succeeded in this area. Several others said they wished that the office would streamline and simplify the guidelines for reporting progress.

Some were confused about how the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), which is a questionnaire designed to help OMB rate federal programs' performance when making budget decisions, fits with the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), the law that requires agencies to develop strategic plans and measure progress in meeting mission goals.

The participants said they would like to develop just one set of measurements that would satisfy both the requirements of GPRA and PART. Otherwise, they said, they would either get bogged down in paperwork or in preparing the PART evaluation, which would become an "exercise in repackaging" their descriptions of steps taken to fulfill GPRA requirements.

Another common complaint was that some OMB workers who had evaluated programs for the PART had not spent enough time getting to know the programs they were rating, and had not seemed interested in learning about them. Some managers had the impression that their agency's evaluators had preconceived notions about how to rank programs before the process began. They also said that OMB lacked the "credibility" to rate programs.

Some participants said they liked the OMB examiners who visited their agencies, and felt the examiners were well intentioned and made an effort to interact with agency staff, but did not have sufficient time to really understand programs in depth. They said they wished that OMB had been more flexible in allowing examiners extra time to evaluate some programs.

Currently, programs are rated on a rotating basis. This year, OMB reviewed a sample of 234 federal programs and rated them as "effective," "moderately effective," "adequate," "results not demonstrated" or "ineffective," based on whether the programs met performance goals established last year. In general, the ratings are designed to correspond with funding decisions in the president's annual budget proposal.

On average, the president's 2004 budget proposal rewarded programs deemed "effective" with a 6 percent funding increase and held those programs not showing results to less than a 1 percent increase, according to calculations by Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute.

Participants at the forum suggested that some agencies need more time to fill out the PART questionnaire and that some types of programs, such as research programs, present more difficulty in demonstrating the type of tangible results necessary to secure funding under the new plan. Others were upset at the notion the administration would deprive failing programs of funds-the very programs that need extra money to get back on their feet, they said.

Participants were also frustrated with Congress for failing to pass the fiscal 2003 appropriations bill until this month. They wondered how lawmakers could hold them accountable for achieving results and ask them to plan years into the future, when Congress could not get its act together to pass a budget until more than a quarter of the way through the fiscal year.

The managers also noted that while OMB might take PART ratings into account when drawing up a budget proposal, congressional appropriators also would need to buy into the management tool for it to work. Forum participants doubted that Congress would support a process that would hurt beneficiaries of failing programs by taking away funding. Some said that program managers should be punished instead, if programs did not meet targets.

In addition, participants in the forum said they would like to see Senior Executive Service members held accountable for agencies' performance and would like to see the SES more involved in helping develop good measures of success. One participant said that he does not think the idea of linking budgets and performance has really "hit home" with executives and that he is worried they view the need to complete program assessments as a passing trend.

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