An evidence-based, data-driven approach to policy is the best way to ensure government is operating efficiently and effectively, say current and former government officials.
The next administration should accelerate governmentwide adoption of the performance- and evidence-based management begun under its predecessors to ensure the federal government is doing its best to improve people’s lives, according to two former Office of Management and Budget officials.
“We have seen remarkable progress in recent years reducing problems such as hospital-acquired infections and advancing opportunities such as energy efficiency,” said Shelley Metzenbaum, who served as OMB associate director of personnel and performance management during President Obama’s first term. “We see this kind of progress when federal agencies routinely use a few simple tools – outcomes-focused goals, performance and other data, analytics, and data-informed discussions – to inform their own and others’ actions, especially when they complement these tools with well-designed research to isolate the impact of government action and test new ways to accomplish more mission for the money.”
Metzenbaum and Robert Shea, her predecessor at OMB during the Bush administration, just released their working paper with several recommendations to help government’s incoming leaders leverage existing performance management tools, and advance evidence-based, data-driven decision-making in federal agencies -- without starting from scratch. The two discussed their ideas and experiences using this approach to governing during an Oct. 5 event in Washington, D.C. hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration and the Volcker Alliance.
Among their recommendations for the new administration:
- Push more aggressively for adoption of a governmentwide, outcomes-focused performance improvement framework.
- Improve accessibility and transparency of performance data and trends for the public and agency stakeholders.
- Bolster resources within agencies to support officials tasked with performance management and improvement duties.
- Develop, test and adopt effective accountability measures.
- Provide new appointees and career officials with common-sense questions to keep in mind – rather than a complicated checklist – as they think about setting and meeting strategic goals.
The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, which was updated in 2010, required agencies to come up with long-term strategic plans and annual performance reports. The Bush administration created a Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), strengthening the tie between agency goals and performance and outcomes to better inform decision-making. The Obama administration has tried to further evolve performance management by moving away from “rating” agencies on compliance to supporting more inter-agency collaboration, continuous learning and acknowledging that failure is part of the process.
The current administration “adjusted accountability expectations to recognize that, by definition, stretch targets that stimulate innovation cannot all be met and the innovation process – testing, assessing, and adjusting to discover better practices – necessarily involves failed trials,” Metzenbaum and Shea wrote. They pointed to the example of accountability encouraged by the New York Police Department under Commissioner William Bratton, who established CompStat, a data-driven tool to reduce crime: “‘No one got in trouble it the crime went up,’ Bratton’s right-hand man Jack Maple, explained. "Trouble arose only if the commanders didn’t know why the numbers were up, or didn’t have a plan to address the problems."
The belief that “government can and should benefit people’s lives” drives the ideas and recommendations Metzenbaum and Shea outlined. “About this, we hope there is little debate,” they added. In many agencies and federal offices, “mindless measurement” and an approach that focuses too much on compliance rather than goal-setting and continuous improvement, persists, Metzenbaum and Shea argued in their analysis. “It’s analyzing, not just collecting data,” Metzenbaum said during the event, which also featured current and former federal and local government officials.
Seth Harris, who served as deputy secretary in the Labor Department during the Obama administration, said he implemented what Metzenbaum and Shea have touted, and it worked. He argued that during his tenure the department had better outcomes – fewer workers got hurt or sick on the job, for example – and Labor now has a chief evaluation officer.
“Government should be able to demonstrate with data and evidence that it’s benefiting people’s lives, and government should benefit people’s lives as efficiently and as effectively as possible,” Harris said, adding that when he was at Labor it was tough getting attention on the topic from some at OMB, or from Capitol Hill. “This is pretty complicated stuff that only the cognoscenti seem to be able to discuss in any meaningful way, and they tend to focus the very limited resources they have available to the few policy issues where they can really move the needle.”
Ted McCann, assistant to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for policy on welfare, education, workforce, pension and Social Security issues, agreed with Harris that Congress should be more involved in holding agencies accountable for performance and outcomes. “We do oversight very, very poorly,” said McCann, who helped push the Evidence-Based Policy Commission through Congress this past spring. “We think evidence should be driving our decisions on how Congress is spending money programmatically. Generally the authorizing committees are getting it, that we need to spend our money more effectively, and I think there is broad bipartisan support for that.” McCann said that lawmakers need to “be very clear on what are the outcomes we expect from the programs we are funding, and how are we going to get there.”
In some cases, it takes a crisis “for people to start taking these things seriously,” said Sharon Kershbaum, a former Treasury Department official who is now the chief operating officer for the Washington, D.C. Department of Human Services. Kershbaum, who worked in Philadelphia city government in the early 2000s as the deputy director in charge of performance management, said it took a budget crisis to get the city to focus on which programs lived and died, based on data-driven outcomes.
“It wasn’t because we had a particularly progressive mayor, or a stable of good government analysts,” said Kershbaum. “It was because we were broke.”