Biden's Opportunity to Make Performance Reporting Work a Lot Better

The White House should go beyond simply reversing what the previous administration did and use data to improve outcomes through true results-driven governance.

Soon after taking office, President Biden nominated Jason Miller, one of President Obama’s top economic advisers, to be deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. On Miller’s plate will be deciding how to handle the Trump administration’s recent removal of performance reporting requirements in agencies’ budget submissions. 

We have a suggestion for Miller: See this as an opportunity to make those requirements more meaningful and impactful for the American people, for agencies and for the White House. That means avoiding a knee-jerk reaction to the previous administration’s move by simply reinstating the previous reporting requirements.

We certainly believe that there should be accountability and transparency for the results achieved by public agencies, including having performance metrics be part of the budget process. The key question is how to create performance reporting requirements that are most effective in strengthening accountability, transparency and, ultimately, outcomes.

The first step, we believe, is acknowledging the serious weaknesses of the current approach, which is a version of the Government Performance and Results Act. The most obvious weakness is that meeting GPRA’s requirements has largely become a compliance exercise, with little impact on actual agency behavior. Neither Congress nor recent presidential administrations closely tracked the data or used it to push agency improvements; they didn’t see the metrics as directly tied to top legislative or executive priorities. During the nearly five years that Seth Harris was deputy secretary of labor, for example, Congress never once asked about the Labor Department’s performance or even its compliance with GPRA.

Another weakness is data quality, something that isn’t often mentioned in discussions about GPRA. Too often the performance metrics sent to OMB—often self-reported data from program offices or grantees—represent weak indicators of actual performance, impact or return on investment. The metrics rarely rely on credible administrative or survey data.

A third weakness: When agency staff see performance management as mainly reporting data up the chain or staying off Congress’s GPRA “bad” list, it sends the wrong message to agencies that should be using data to set goals, mobilize resources and align incentives for continuous improvement. If federal staff, grantees, contractors and other program stakeholders don’t perceive the GPRA process as helping them improve, it loses its legitimacy. 

To be clear, we’re not saying that GPRA hasn’t done any good or that its current version hasn’t increased agencies’ use of performance information more than its predecessors. We’re also supportive of the spirit of the law, which sees credible performance information as a bedrock of good government. But we believe that there’s an important opportunity to do much better. We believe the reset the Biden administration was handed is the perfect time to do that.

So, what should OMB do? We have four recommendations. First, the Biden administration should ensure that the agency performance metrics reported to OMB—including measures that span agencies—directly connect to the president’s top priorities, including pandemic response, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.

Second, the White House should use those metrics to track and drive its agenda. That could include PerformanceStat-type meetings that regularly review the metrics by priority and then problem-solve how to make further and faster progress. Only when performance metrics are actively used by top leaders will the federal government’s performance management efforts evolve from mainly “hoop jumping” into a meaningful driver of results.

Third, the Biden administration should launch an initiative to ensure that the most credible data is used to track agency results. That will require an honest, detailed look at current data quality issues. It will also require new data-sharing agreements between agencies and the Census Bureau, Treasury and other important sources of high-quality data. For example, the same approach that Education uses to produce the College Scorecard, using tax data from Treasury to measure post-college income by school, could be expanded to a broad range of programs to more accurately measure outcomes.

Finally, for every presidential priority that involves state and local partners, there should be an associated agency or cross-agency team that builds strong connections to state and local officials. The teams could form ad hoc intergovernmental task forces that also bring together grantees, contractors and other stakeholders to address both data and performance issues. Addressing those issues should include questions like: What factors are inhibiting better performance on the ground? Where are federal requirements mainly about compliance rather than results? What data is currently used to track performance, and how could that data be improved?

From our conversations with agency performance staff during the past two administrations, we’ve seen that the level of cynicism about the current version of GPRA is strong enough that mere tweaks to the process are unlikely to restore credibility with agencies or make the law useful to the White House. Instead, the Biden administration has the chance to significantly reform the way the law is applied with a more impactful strategy—one that can truly catalyze results-focused government and increase taxpayer value.

Andrew Feldman is a director at Grant Thornton Public Sector and also hosts the Gov Innovator podcast. He served as a special adviser on the evidence team at the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration and as a staff economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton administration.

Kathy Stack is an independent consultant. She served for more than three decades in the federal government, including 28 years at the White House Office of Management and Budget.