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Moving from Process to Practice in Performance Management

Agencies are showing they get how to leverage performance data.

After more than 20 years trying to measure and improve performance, federal agencies are beginning to adopt cultures of continuous improvement and have shown progress in using data to help make decisions, according to a newly released report.

The report found that most of the progress is taking place at top agency levels, but has not filtered down to the program level, where greater support from leadership is needed. In addition, collaboration with Congress remains a sticking point.

These and other findings are based on interviews by the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton with more than 50 Performance Improvement Officers (PIO), the agency officials charged with helping organizations measure and improve results, focus groups, and a survey to gauge the success of performance management efforts.

The report, Taking Measure: Moving from Process to Practice in Performance Management, showed PIOs think recent changes have produced meaningful advancement. They said that focusing on a few top goals, as required by the Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act of 2010 has renewed enthusiasm for measuring performance, and that quarterly reviews required by the new law have been a huge step forward, bringing top leaders into the conversation about performance goals, progress and obstacles.

The 2010 law also required the establishment of agency chief operating officers and the PIOs, and gave them important performance responsibilities. This requirement has given greater visibility to senior agency leaders, who are actively contributing to the necessary cultural transformation at agencies, according to those interviewed. The leadership commitment is making a big difference, even though more needs to be done.

Of course, not all is going perfectly. We found that despite agencies collecting a great deal of data about performance, the data are not being used at all levels to help make decisions. This finding is consistent with a recent Government Accountability Office report, which said performance information being produced could be more accessible, available, understandable and relevant. The amount of data can sometimes be overwhelming. Agencies aren’t communicating as well as they could be about what the data shows.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing agencies is getting the skills needed to define measures and collect and analyze data in a meaningful way. The current climate of flat pay, no bonuses and budget cuts makes solving this problematic.

It would not be responsible just to identify problems and celebrate progress, without also making practical recommendations for solving them. The following are some of the recommendations from the report:

  • Agency leaders must make adoption of a performance culture a priority and redouble efforts to motivate agency units to use available data to improve performance and hold themselves accountable.
  • Chief operating officers should broaden the adoption of regular, data-driven meetings and encourage performance leaders in subcomponents to learn from performance measures and management practices used by others.
  • Agencies should establish priority goals that involve more than one agency unit as a way to increase collaboration, provide opportunities to learn and achieve better results.
  • The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should continue investing in program evaluation activities that enhance understanding of performance and program outcomes, and improve how those efforts are connected to performance management. Better coordination among those who set goals and measure performance, and those who lead evaluation initiatives, would accelerate the adoption of best practices.
  • OMB should, in collaboration with the Performance Improvement Council and the Office of Personnel Management, develop and advance a set of core competencies for staff that couples business knowledge with analytical ability and stresses the importance of performance measurement and data analytics to managing program performance and driving improvement.

Engagement with Congress is one of the most glaring gaps in current performance management efforts, and one that’s persisted for many years.

In the survey responses, PIOs acknowledged that federal agencies’ outreach to Congress on performance is virtually nonexistent. Both Congress and agencies are missing an opportunity to accelerate improvements in program performance. PIOs can play an important role in crafting reports that meet the needs of legislators and facilitate a discussion about what’s needed to drive greater results. Congress is showing an increasing appetite for this kind of conversation. The executive branch should feed it.

The 2010 law has given new life to performance management efforts at the federal level, according to PIOs. Some practical steps, including driving efforts to the bureau and program level, enhancing data analytics skill and renewing engagement with Congress, can hasten the adoption of best practices and enhance the results government achieves for its citizens.

Government management expert Robert Shea is a principal at Grant Thornton and former U.S. Office of Management and Budget leader. He also served as Counsel to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. For a copy of the Taking Measure: Moving from Process to Practice in Performance Management report, go to Join the conversation on twitter at #takingmeasure. 

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