Here’s Something We Can All Agree On: Agencies Need to Deliver Results

In a time of superheated politics, a focus on government performance is especially important.

These days, politics bombards us at the speed and persistence of the Internet, social media (including tweets from the president) and 24-hour cable news. As a result, we obsess over optics and outrages, while ignoring important questions about whether the federal government is producing results that improve Americans’ lives. It is the risk of overlooking actual public sector performance in favor of political theater.

Even in less politically charged times, getting attention for government performance issues is difficult. One of us (Harris) spent five years leading management reforms at the Department of Labor. He was never called to testify, even once, before a Congressional committee to discuss the Department’s performance. During his tenure, Congress passed new legislation mandating more extensive performance measurement and management. Yet no member of Congress nor any of their staff ever asked whether the Labor Department meaningfully complied with the new mandates or if the mandates actually made Americans’ lives better. Conversations with other agency leaders show this was the norm.

At first glance, public management may not be flashy work, but it is essential to helping our nation address important challenges and delivering value to taxpayers. Smart policy is critical, but so is implementation and continuous improvement. It is why government must set clear and ambitious goals, use evidence to do what works, track results to fix problems and be accountable to the public, and ensure a well-trained and motivated workforce.

All Americans should care whether there is a robust focus on performance within the federal government. They should also expect and demand transparency about results. Why? Because it matters if, say, fewer workers die or are injured in their workplaces, if more children with disabilities succeed in school, if there are fewer terrorist attacks and outbreaks of disease, if more people have the skills and training for good-quality jobs, and if fewer Americans die from opioid overdoses. If government performance improves, Americans’ lives will also improve. The relationship is that direct and important.

So how can the Trump Administration keep federal agencies focused on delivering and improving results? We have four recommendations.

1. The President should put one senior White House official in charge of overseeing Executive Branch performance and then hold that person accountable. We suggest the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget as the lead for performance improvement initiatives, coordinating efforts around program evaluation and evidence, data analytics, performance management, and innovation. Making agencies focus on results will require strong leadership and coordination by the White House. In each department, current law puts deputy secretaries in charge of these matters. These officials should be directly accountable to their agency heads, but also to the OMB Director. Thus, President Trump should issue an executive order committing his administration to evidence-based, data-driven management and naming the OMB director as the lead official to implement that management agenda.

2. The President should make his entire administration accountable to the American people for the government’s performance. At a minimum, all government performance data that are not classified should be published on the Internet. However, understanding these data can be difficult for lay citizens. Each agency should be required to construct and publish an annual performance index that offers a complete picture of the agency’s current performance compared with its past performance on outcomes that matter most to Americans.

Of course, Congress has an important role to play in oversight of executive branch management as well. Congress appropriates the funds that fuel nearly every program in the federal government, but it is also the author of two detailed statutes on performance management. Harris’s experience in the Labor Department—the radio silence by Congress on performance issues—should not be repeated. Congress should ensure that taxpayers are getting the outcomes they deserve, and that the executive branch is complying with its management mandates. The President should urge Congress to engage.

3. The administration should reinvent the way federal agencies work with state and local governments. Today, too many federal programs and policies are overly prescriptive and focused on compliance rather than outcomes. There are few incentives for continuous improvement through the use of data and evidence. Meaningful reform will require a high-level champion. As a former governor who has invested political capital in reforming government, Vice President Pence would be an ideal person to lead that effort. The key to sustainable change would be focusing on bipartisan reforms, including those that balance increases in flexibility with increases in accountability for outcomes, while ensuring safeguards to protect vulnerable populations. The Performance Partnership Pilots provide a good example. In 2014, Congress authorized the first set of 10 pilots focused on serving disconnected youth—young people who are neither in school nor working. Today three rounds of pilots have been launched, allowing communities to pool federal discretionary funds in exchange for a commitment to measure and track specific cross-program outcomes.

4. The Trump administration should work with Congress to reform or replace the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. The law was well intentioned, designed to require agencies to undertake basic performance management activities that are the building blocks of good government. In reality, however, the GPRA Modernization Act has largely become a compliance exercise. Agencies dutifully go through the motions, but there is little evidence that it actually changes behavior or improves outcomes for the American people.

For example, a Government Accountability Office survey of federal managers found that agencies’ use of performance information showed no improvement between 2007 and 2013. Only one Cabinet-level agency saw a meaningful increase in the use of performance information: the Department of Labor. Based on firsthand experience by one of us, that improvement occurred in spite of the 2010 law, not because of it.

Today, the level of cynicism about the GPRA Modernization Act is so high that tweaks will not be enough to improve the law or to regain credibility with agencies. One option is to amend the Act by creating a high standard of excellence and allowing exemptions for agencies that meet it. In other words, agencies that demonstrate that they are using leading practices of evidence-based policy and performance management should be exempted from the make-work aspects of the law. Another option is to replace the law with something better, like a process to examine programs—and portfolios of related programs—to determine if they use evidence-based approaches, track outcomes, and evaluate their effectiveness in order to promote continuous improvement. Those that don’t should be reformed and redesigned.

Our recommendations to the Trump administration are designed to carry on the bipartisan spirit of the evidence-based policy movement championed by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and embodied by today’s bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, sponsored Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. The recommendations avoid supposedly “easy answers” on either side of the aisle about improving government, from simply spending more on current programs to block-granting funds to states with little accountability for results.

In a time of superheated politics, a focus on government performance is especially important. Americans should be able to trust that their government will efficiently and effectively tackle the challenges we face. With a few reforms and affirmative steps, we can help strengthen that trust.

Andrew Feldman is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the recent Brookings report, Strengthening Results-Focused Government. He previously served at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Obama Administration. Follow him on Twitter @AndyFeldman.

Seth Harris is an attorney and Executive in Residence at Cornell University’s Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. He served as Deputy Secretary of Labor and Acting Secretary of Labor in the Obama Administration. Follow him on Twitter @MrSethHarris.

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