Vince Clements /

The Majority of Agency Heads Don’t Actually Use Data on Program Performance

But nearly two-thirds of performance officers in survey see progress toward culture of measurement.

Agencies are advancing the principles of data-based performance, linking programs to mission and measuring return on investment, a new survey shows. But less than half of performance officers (48 percent) surveyed said their agency heads use performance data to drive decision-making.

In a study titled “Putting Together the Performance Pieces” released Wednesday by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton LLP, the average grade respondents assigned to their agencies’ performance efforts was a “C,” with 13 percent giving failing grades.

On the positive side, more than half in departments and sub-agencies gave their agencies a “B” on progress toward a performance-based culture, and 62 percent cited progress to a “great” or “very great” extent.

The survey and focus group interviews in six large departments are part of a series of examinations of agency compliance with the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, which, among other requirements, mandates appointment of performance improvement officers. The fact that only 48 percent said their department’s top leadership uses performance data to make decisions to a “great” extent “indicates a perception that department-level leaders are making decisions without considering the analytical work that performance staff are leading,” the report said.

“Over the past five years, performance staff have said that their organizations are able to tackle challenges better when they implement key practices, such as connecting program activities to agency priorities and demonstrating return on investment.”

An example given was the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which made a sustained effort to transform the organization’s strategic planning process and connect bureau priority goals to employees’ work. The director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Program Evaluation, the report said, led a three-year effort to develop a modified balanced scorecard. “The staff rely on the scorecard—a performance improvement tool that integrates the bureau’s strategic objectives with key metrics—as the bureau’s new strategic management framework.”

One source of resistance, respondents said, comes from people in units that aren’t directly involved with an agency’s “high priority goals,” making some staff feel less committed. “There’s a cultural resistance here that if the secretary or deputy secretary doesn’t have a direct meeting with you on it, well, then ‘Why would I do it on my own?’ ” the performance improvement officer said.

The report suggested tools for improvement grouped around five best practices: Connect program activities to agency priorities; get the needed analytical talent; build meaningful relationships; move from data to actionable information; and demonstrate return on investment.

(Image via  /