Agencies improve quality of performance reports

Most federal agencies improved the quality of their performance reports over the last year, researchers at George Mason University announced Wednesday.

Since 1999, the Mercatus Center, a Fairfax, Va.-based policy institute at George Mason University, has rated the 24 agencies covered under the Chief Financial Officer's Act each year on how well they communicate their missions to the public and policymakers. Mercatus researchers rate agencies' on a scale of one to 20 in three areas: clarity and accessibility; demonstration of results to the public; and leadership in fixing management problems. The ratings are not designed to measure actual performance, the researchers cautioned.

While most agencies improved their performance reporting for fiscal 2002, the top-rated agencies are stagnating or even losing ground, while the poor performers are catching up, said Sarah Nutter, one of the researchers who assigned ratings.

Agencies' ratings are not directly comparable from year to year, Nutter explained, because Mercatus has toughened its standards. For instance, in fiscal 1999 an agency would score well on transparency if researchers could find any link to a performance report on the Web. Now, the reports must be easy to locate for agencies to receive a high score in that category.

The Labor Department does the best job of publishing clear performance reports, followed by the Transportation Department, Small Business Administration and Veterans Affairs Department, the researchers concluded. Labor earned a score of 40 out of 60 possible points, excelling at tracking and presenting data on costs. Mercatus researchers praised Transportation for a well-organized performance report that included trend data and was easy to locate on the department's Web site.

In addition to receiving the third-best score, the Small Business Administration made some of the most significant progress over last year, Nutter said. SBA's performance report featured a clear layout and used visuals effectively. The report also did well at describing the agency's strategic goals and accomplishments for fiscal 2002.

SBA's improvement is especially notable because the agency has been working hard to fix accounting problems that the General Accounting Office uncovered and outlined in a January report (GAO-03-87), said Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., who spoke at an event to mark the release of the Mercatus Center's rankings. Accounting issues led federal auditors to withdraw clean opinions on the SBA's fiscal 2000 and 2001 financial statements.

The Defense Department and Agency for International Development lost the most ground in providing clear financial statements, Nutter said. Defense ranked last, partly because its performance reports did not present any baseline trend data that would help the public compare its finances over time.

Defense is an example of a department that does "A" level work but earns a "D" for transparency, economy and efficiency, according to Comptroller General David Walker. "Obviously there's a lot of room for improvement when you're No. 24 of 24," he said.

Platts, chair of the House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency and Financial Management, said that he and fellow lawmakers are better able to work with agencies that present clear performance reports. Walker said GAO also appreciates transparent reports, but emphasized that the Mercatus rankings do not indicate how well agencies actually perform. "In the end, it's results that count," he said.

To see the complete rankings, visit the Mercatus Web site.