The Trump Administration’s guidance to remove the data from the president’s budget is counterproductive—federal agencies should be increasing their use of performance information to improve results.
In a surprise pre-Christmas move the Trump administration issued new guidance directing federal agencies to omit performance information from the President’s Budget. To justify the change, the White House Office of Management and Budget noted the administration's desire to “eliminate bureaucratic processes that do not lead to impactful change.” Given that the incoming Biden administration will issue its own budget proposal to Congress, this 11th hour change is damaging and puzzling, in particular because this link between performance and the budget is required by law.
To understand the potential impact of this change, it is important to know that it reverses the bipartisan gains made by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, all of which learned from the experience of their predecessors to improve the linkage between budgets and performance information. Progress has been made over the years identifying the goals of federal programs for which spending is proposed. Over time, linking goals to the budget has made it easier for agencies, Congress, and the public to better understand the results to be achieved with taxpayer dollars. This focus on performance has also helped agencies improve their practices: The Government Accountability Office noted that it has increased cross-agency collaboration and a recent academic study found that it has “succeeded in pushing purposeful performance information use among federal employees.”
Consider the alternative: proposing spending without indicating its purpose and desired goals. This would be nonsensical and a step backwards. In addition to clearly communicating the link between performance goals and proposed spending, it also makes sense to pair information about goals and spending with information about where past progress has been made and where improvement is needed.
The purpose of linking performance and budgeting information is not simply to fund what works and de-fund what does not. Many government programs were created to alleviate problems or pursue opportunities that remain important even when the practices a program is using have not yet achieved the desired results. This highlights another reason for linking budget and performance information: to make sure that when goals are not reached that the agency has planned, asked for, and explained the resources needed to find ways to do better and increase adoption of better practices.
This is not to suggest that improvements are not needed. They are.
There has been criticism, some warranted, about performance data reporting being a pro forma process rather than a meaningful opportunity to examine how better results might be achieved. While federal agency performance information certainly needs to be more useful, the solution is not to remove such data from the budget process as the new OMB guidance mandates. Instead, metrics should be connected to the budget in more meaningful ways that better communicate the relationship between spending and results.
In fact, the beginning of a new administration is a good time to ask what changes are needed to achieve better results in more equitable and cost-effective ways. It is also a good time to consider how to take advantage of massive technology advances that can improve electronic reporting from agencies to the public via Performance.gov.
In the new administration, OMB can better use the discipline of the budget process to ensure that outcome measures are meaningfully used by all agencies as a tool to focus their efforts and ensure continuous improvement, especially in areas like pandemic recovery. In particular, OMB can make sure that agencies collect, analyze, and share performance data and other evidence with front-line workers and policy decision-makers in a way that encourages adoption of more impactful and equity focused practices.
To advance learning and continuous improvement, OMB can also use performance information shared through the budget process to identify areas where agencies working on the same or related goals can collaborate with, and learn from, each other to realize greater outcomes and efficiency for the government as a whole. This will require more internal collaboration at OMB. In particular, OMB’s management offices will need to work more closely with each other and with the budget side to make sure performance information is collected, analyzed, and shared with key audiences in ways that are easy to find, understand, and apply.
In sum, more can be done to further improve how performance information is gathered, used, and shared. But the necessary first step is for agencies to provide this information as part of the budget process. It now falls to the incoming Biden administration to demonstrate its appreciation for using performance data and other evidence as vital tools to continually improve the effectiveness and efficiency of taxpayer dollars. Let us hope no future missives on this subject come forth from this White House. Instead, we must find ways to make the federal government’s budget and performance practices more coherent, responsive, and effective in serving the American people.
Jed Herrmann is vice president for state and federal policy implementation at Results for America. Shelley Metzenbaum served as the associate director of performance and personnel management at the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2013.