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Buried in the Budget: Ways to Rev Up Performance

What agencies need to measure what works and change what doesn't.

The administration’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal shows that it is committed to creating capacity and sustainability for performance-and-results based government.

Beyond the dollars in the president’s budget, there are some details buried in congressional justifications that are worth examining. There are three sets of initiatives—which for the most part do not create new programs or spend much in new dollars—that are worth attention:

  • Building the capacity to implement and sustain cross-agency priority goals
  • Creating capacity to conduct meaningful performance-and-results assessments and link them to implementation
  • Extending evidence-based approaches to solving problems

Cross-Agency Priority Goals

The administration continues to implement the 2010 revisions to the Government Performance and Results Act, which requires creation of cross-agency priority goals that span an administration’s four years. The Obama administration last year highlighted 15 priority goals and tracks their progress quarterly on Performance.gov. Following are two key initiatives:

  • Fund cross-agency goals. The budget notes: “There is no established means of funding the execution of these cross-agency efforts.” So the president has requested authority to transfer up to $15 million from agencies’ existing budgets to help support these initiatives. The cross-agency goal to improve customer service, for example, aims to pilot a “federal feedback button”—a tool to solicit, aggregate and analyze customer service feedback consistently across federal programs. The initiative would create the ability to monitor customer service feedback on a near real-time basis and would be rolled out to customer-facing agencies in 2016. Supporting this centrally, with support across government agencies, makes sense.  

  • Support cross-agency leadership development. The budget justification says funding authority will largely be used to pay salaries for a cadre of high-potential civil service detailees who will be brought in from agencies under the new White House Leadership Development Program, announced by President Obama in December when he met with the senior executive corps. The program would focus on developing cross-agency management skills. The idea is to pilot the program in 2015, with a fully operational program in 2016 for 20 participants. Agency deputy secretaries will run a selection process to identify nominees. Candidates would participate in rotational assignments among the different cross-agency priority goals. The pilot should work out some of the potential kinks identified by observers, such as former senior executive Ron Sanders, who has flagged some issues that are still being defined.

The authority to transfer $15 million from agencies would not support only specific functionality—such as the creation of a “feedback button”—but it would also develop longer-term staff capacity that strengthens the next generation of SES leaders in cross-agency collaboration.

Performance and Results Assessments

The new GPRA law requires annual reviews of the progress of agency programs. The Office of Management and Budget has worked with agencies to review their strategic objectives (about 320). Reviews have been completed and reported for 17 of the 23 largest agencies (for the most part, missing agencies had not completed their reviews at the time of publication).

In conducting these reviews, agencies were encouraged to use existing internal review processes, not create a new process or ask for new data calls. Reviews tended to be separated into mission-support and mission-delivery functions. Reviews were largely conducted by performance improvement officers or at the assistant secretary level. OMB proposes several initiatives to increase agencies’ capacity to conduct these reviews, but more importantly, connect the results to program implementation. OMB proposes to:

  • Integrate the review process. Based on lessons learned in the first round of reviews, OMB will encourage agencies to conduct a more holistic process, combining reviews of mission support and mission delivery in what is tentatively being called FedStat (e.g., include PortfolioStat, and benchmarking reviews). OMB also plans to encourage agencies to move the discussion of the reviews up from the PIO or assistant secretary of management level to the chief operating officer level (often the deputy secretary).

  • Cascade the use of performance-stat/annual review processes down through the agencies. Departments frequently conducted quarterly or annual progress reviews at the departmental level. OMB sees value in these types of reviews being held at lower levels—in bureaus, components and field offices. In fiscal 2016, OMB will encourage the use of regular cross-cutting review processes at lower levels within agencies.

  • Continue developing performance management capacity within agencies. The GPRA law created a cross-agency council of agency performance improvement officers. The Performance Improvement Council has begun to sponsor cross-agency communities of practice and helps agencies build performance measurement and analytic capacities. Council staff members, for example, have helped agencies develop templates and best practices for conducting strategic reviews.

The Council also developed a program for cohorts of performance improvement professionals, the Performance Enthusiast and Ambassadors Program. In addition, it created a Collaboration Studio—a place to bring together teams that have a cross-cutting challenges. According to the budget, it provides “an established facilitation methodology and an intense focus on the challenge at hand that may not otherwise be available to teams.”

Evidence-Based Problem-Solving

There has been rare bipartisan agreement during the Obama administration to get better results at lower costs by learning what programs work and why. This agreement has led to a series of related initiatives, with increasing congressional support and funding. The fiscal 2016 budget reflects a number of these efforts, such as:

  • Improve access to administrative data. The administration’s Open Data Initiative—intended to make more statistical information available publicly—has also led to agencies recognizing the value of the data they have, analyzing the information, and using it more effectively.  The budget recognizes that “significant challenges remain, including the need to update both the legal framework around data access and many agencies’ data infrastructure.” In addition, the administration has embraced a bipartisan proposal to “establish a Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking” which would advise Congress on ways to improve legal access to data while protecting privacy.

  • Continue OMB’s data-driven innovation fund. A small $2 million fund, which is already in place, would strengthen efforts within OMB “to advance results-focused and evidence-based practices across federal agencies and within federally funded state and local programs.” Projects under development include: support to implement a third round of performance partnership pilot programs for disconnected youth, improving access to Social Security earnings data across agencies (aggregate, not for individuals), and support for agency infrastructure to expand evidence-based grant-making.

  • Expand the use of pay for success financing. Sometimes called “social impact bonds,” the administration’s Pay for Success efforts are expanding to six agencies with a proposed commitment of $364 million. According to an OMB fact sheet: “Pay for Success financing is an innovative model that leverages philanthropic and private dollars to fund preventive services, which are provided by nonprofits and other nongovernmental entities up front, with the government paying only when services generate measurable results that meet pre-specified targets.” Potential program areas include housing, education and social services for ex-offenders. State and local governments are also piloting this approach, and there is strong foundation and nonprofit support as well.

While these various efforts may not be making headlines, they would create longer-term capacity for agencies to effectively implement programs—especially in cases where results require collaboration across agency boundaries.

(Image via Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock.com)

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