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Obama’s Final Budget Holds Some Surprising Hidden Pearls

Data on issues as varied as crime, disposable income, and heavy drinking offer valuable insight into what’s working and what isn’t in government.

Last month, President Obama released his budget request for 2017. Not surprisingly, most media attention went to Congress’s unprecedented decision not to invite the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to testify on the President’s budget, announced even before the White House released the budget. Other stories primarily covered the magnitude of the request and winners and losers compared to prior-year appropriations. 

Unfortunately, little attention has been given to the wealth of additional information contained in other sections of the budget, especially in the Analytical Perspectives. Among the AP chapters are three that arguably discuss what matters most to the American people, not just how much was and will be spent but also what government has accomplished and hopes to accomplish with future spending. Chapter 5 presents trends on key indicators the federal government tries to influence; Chapter 6 reports progress advancing specific goals agencies set to move those indicators; and Chapter 7 underscores the need to strengthen government’s capacity to use data and evaluations to inform priority-setting and identify increasingly effective and cost-effective practices.

The “Social Indicators” chapter presents historic trends in six areas: economic; demographic and civic; socioeconomic; health; security and safety; and environment and energy,” reporting on “a subset of the vast array of available data on conditions in the United States,” that are “broadly relevant to Americans and consistently available over an extended period . . . providing a current snapshot while also making it easier to draw comparisons and establish trends.”

This chapter may surprise you. Despite the gloom-and-doom stories we read every day, progress is being made in many areas, including infant mortality, crime, births to young unmarried women, college graduation, patents, and real disposable income. Trends in other areas, however, are less favorable, including obesity, real median income, heavy drinking, and recreational reading.

We can debate and decide whether or not the right set of key national indicators has been chosen, whether additional ones should be added, if some should be dropped or revised, and if additional indicators already tracked should be made more readily available. These are healthy questions. What is surprising, though, is how little attention this section of the President’s budget gets even though it provides “context both for prioritizing budgetary and policy-making resources and for evaluating how well existing approaches are working.”

The chapter that follows, on “Driving a High-Performing Government,” addresses specific goals government agencies set to influence social indicators and improve the quality and cost of government delivery. For example, Veterans’ disability claims pending over 125 days have finally dropped – from about 600,000 to 70,000; the General Services Administration has cut federal leased space by a half-million square feet; and the Small Business Administration has increased the disaster loan application return rate from 24% at the end of FY 2013 to 98% by the end of FY 2015, speeding assistance to eligible disaster survivors and saving $145,000.  Chapter 6 also points to, with more detailed information about agency and cross-agency goals, and describes emerging strategies, such as those to tackle the difficult challenge of managing cross-agency goals across organizational boundaries.

The performance data described in Chapter 6 and reported on are a valuable tool that program managers use to detect promising practices, those worth continuing or exploring further, and possible problems. Performance data alone cannot, however, distinguish the effect of agency action from that of other factors also influencing measured performance. More sophisticated analytic and evaluation methods are needed for that. Chapter 7, “Building the Capacity to Produce and Use Evidence,” underscores the need to strengthen government’s capacity to use evidence to inform priority-setting and find increasingly effective and cost-effective practices. It also describes the kinds of evidence useful to decision-makers.

These chapters are not the hottest read in town, I admit.  Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine private sector investors similarly ignoring the annual and quarterly reports of the companies in which they invest.

Let me suggest a few changes to draw attention to this useful information:

  • Include trend (or “spark”) lines in the Social Indicators chapter to make trends easier to see.
  • Offer online tools to make it possible to see different trends in relation to one another.
  • Link long and short-term goals to relevant social indicators so the public (and other government offices) can click on each social indicator to see contributing goals along with government agencies and offices working on the goal.
  • More explicitly link relevant research to long and short-term agency goals.

These changes may be hard to undertake in the last year of an eight-year term, but given the Obama Administration’s e-gov and open government inclinations, perhaps it will introduce these changes or at least make a start. If not, I hope the next Administration will.

Shelley H. Metzenbaum is senior advisor at the Volcker Alliance. She served as associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget during the first term of the Obama administration.

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