Clear goals, transparently pursued can be a powerful tool to drive output-oriented performance, but there are caveats.
April 23, 1998. A bipartisan summit, of sorts, on the implementation of the Government Performance and Results Act was being broadcast by C-SPAN and I had been tasked with drafting Vice President Al Gore’s remarks. The summit was hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration and the Council for Excellence in Government and included the House majority leader, Richard Armey, as well as one of GPRA’s lead Senate sponsors, Sen. John Glenn.
At the time, Armey—at the direction of then Speaker Newt Gingrich—had recently finished leading a task force of House committee members in scouring federal agencies’ first-ever strategic plans and challenging them to be more results-oriented. While this review effort was largely seen by the media as a political exercise, it actually engaged members of Congress with agency strategic plans.
Gore talked about how the decline of trust in government is linked to a perceived lack of government performance and that “we can help redeem the promise of self-government [so that citizens will have] healthier levels of respect for what we have accomplished . . . '' it's a matter of performance, not politics.” He also said we need to “shift discussion from preparing plans to using plans . . . Our challenge is to make the Act work.”
What was the media’s reaction to the whole event? They reported that Gore gave an impossibly wonky speech . . . and I was never asked to draft another one for him again.
Outputs Versus Outcomes
The more significant matter coming out of that event was what were these plans and subsequent performance reports going to be used for, and who was the target audience for using them? It was clear that Congress was interested in using them for accountability purposes.
At the time, the Congress was dominated by Republicans who decided to use the GPRA law (which they dubbed “the Results Act”) to force agencies to be clearer about what they were trying to achieve. The biggest pushback from agencies was that they wanted to focus on what they could produce—outputs like the number of Social Security checks issued—versus what outcomes were agencies trying to achieve, such as reduced poverty among elderly as a result of incomes supplemented by Social Security. Agencies felt they should be held accountable for outputs, over which they had control, but not outcomes, which they could influence but not control.
Focus on Accountability
Agencies were afraid of looking bad. In fact, in Gore’s remarks, he said: “There has been a great deal of reluctance among many agencies to commit to goals over which they have little real control.” In fact, managers in one agency told me that their leadership directed that personal performance targets should be set at 15% below of what they felt was achievable, so they could be assured of meeting their targets when reporting to Congress. That wasn’t the right approach.
Stretch goals were touted as a better practice for improving performance. Yet agencies that did set stretch goals, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, were punished by congressional appropriators for missing stretch goals, such as increasing the percentage of drivers wearing seatbelts. Seeing this response by Congress, many agencies lowered their targets and their profiles.
In 2001, the incoming Bush administration decided to double down on focusing the performance system on accountability. It created public scorecards for the performance of management systems using a red-yellow-green stoplight approach. In addition, it scored each of more than 1,000 individual government programs on a 100-point scale as to their effectiveness. These scores were made public.
The philosophy of Clay Johnson, who led the management initiatives, was that “shame and humiliation” was an effective way to spur improvement in performance. And to some extent, it did, but that system was dismantled in 2009 by the incoming Obama administration which had a different philosophy for driving performance improvement (the subject of an upcoming column).
Performance Accountability in Action
The emphasis on accountability, transparency and targets still has its adherents and it can work in specific circumstances, mainly in programs that are fairly stable and have a set of routines that can be directly controlled, such as processing grants, licenses, or benefits. These are largely output-oriented programs.
For example, the Veterans Benefits Administration has put in place a leading example of how to use clear goals, priorities, and publicly available information to drive performance across an organization of 25,000 employees. In a recent presentation at the National Academy of Public Administration, Undersecretary Paul Lawrence described three priorities in improving VBA’s performance and accountability.
- First, he said the clear goal is that “we are all in” on getting benefits to those who have earned them. VBA has eight lines of business, such as the GI Bill, home loans, pensions, and disability benefits. Lawrence reports quarterly on the progress of each in a live webcast, with commitments on what to expect in the coming quarter.
- Second, stewardship of taxpayer dollars involves ensuring the benefits are deserved and in the correct amount. Lawrence says there is a rigorous quality control process to ensure benefit examiners are meeting standards. He has instituted an incentive program, giving business lines challenging performance targets and if they are met, with the right level of quality, then employees are granted an extra day of vacation.
- And third is increased collaboration with partners and stakeholders. Since Lawrence doesn’t control all the elements needed for success, he has worked internally with the departmental chief information officer to modernize the benefits determination process, and externally with stakeholders via 2,500 outreach events with veterans and their organizations, 500 of which were with homeless veterans.
What’s been the progress? In 2013, there were 611,000 cases for benefit determination in the backlog que. By November 2019, it was 64,800. Lawrence says that veterans are getting benefits faster and are waiting less time, and that in the coming year, the targets for performance will be ratcheted upward.
The lesson: Using clear goals, performance information, transparency, and targets to highlight accountability can be a powerful tool to drive output-oriented performance (such as the approval of a benefit), especially in clearly-defined and stable program areas. But since “results” are not just the outputs of a particular program, and there is not always a stable program environment, there are different approaches used in other parts of government. The next column will highlight an alternative approach.