The Next Steps in Performance Management are Critical
The Biden administration should restore and stimulate performance management across the executive branch, encouraging managers doing the hard work of improvement.
Five days before the end of the Trump administration, the then-Director of the Office of Management and Budget Russell Vought rolled back many ways in which federal agencies implement performance management, in compliance with the 2010 Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act (GPRAMA; PL 111-352). The law requires most federal agencies to establish goals and metrics for measuring performance of agency programs and activities and to report on whether they are meeting their targets. The abrupt recall of OMB guidance and the removal of performance reporting from the budget process mark a turning point for the performance management framework and for the incoming administration.
Where does performance management go from here? Given the right conditions, goal setting and performance measurement can improve performance across public and private sector organizations. I offer four observations in relation to GPRAMA.
- Federal executives have reported that working on priority goals inspired focus and effort on their teams. The performance management process provided structure and a timetable for identifying indicators of performance, setting targets, collecting and disseminating quarterly data, and discussing progress with senior leadership. These elements bring attention to priority goals, add new information about performance trends, attract leadership endorsement for priorities, and bring different offices together to address obstacles. They raise morale among those working toward the goals.
- Federal executives working with the GPRAMA framework have produced some important outcomes. To mention just a few examples: Treasury increased its use of electronic transactions; Labor focused mine inspections on high risk sites; Energy removed or disposed of vulnerable nuclear material; Commerce improved customer satisfaction with trade assistance; Housing and Urban Development increased the energy efficiency of public housing. Cross-agency priority goals led to selected increases in customer satisfaction and selected reductions in improper payments. Agencies and cross-agency teams identified goals that required collaboration, which sharpened thinking, reconciled diverse perspectives, and sparked creativity. These results do not happen everywhere, but they happen often enough with enough impact to be worth preserving.
- Learning how to manage for results takes time. Many successes emerged only after trial and error, in a cycle of learning. Coordination with other levels of government and external stakeholders can be fiendishly difficult. Over time, many agencies have gotten better at goal setting and measurement.
- Neither elected officials nor political appointees have successfully used the performance framework to hold agencies or leaders accountable for performance, although some observers expected that they would. This shortcoming is important, but not fatal, if the performance framework yields value in improving management and enhancing learning.
The Biden administration should restore and stimulate performance management across the executive branch, encouraging managers to do the hard work required for improvement. To support agency and program leaders, the performance framework should make learning possible, probable, and powerful.
- Reinforce the expectations that agencies will continue to engage in goal setting, measuring progress on goals, reporting regularly on progress, and periodic review. Without continuity of OMB involvement at the center and course correction at the agencies, and without the conviction that GPRAMA will be enforced, progress is likely to stall.
- Invest in federal data systems, recruiting, and training to build agencies’ capacity to collect and analyze high quality performance data. The better the measurement, the more can be learned about outcomes and levers for change.
- Showcase success. The work of many federal agencies is invisible to the public, and to elected officials. Much of this work focuses on crucial, technical challenges—reducing error rates, speeding up awards, coordinating multiple agencies for infrastructure permitting, improving financial data. Making success visible by offering rewards for great results motivates learning and encourages others to join the fun.
- Position OMB to nurture cross-agency communities of practice. Federal executives have much to learn from each other, and they learn in diverse ways. OMB is uniquely positioned to encourage coordination in which senior leaders solve problems, share experiences and discover more effective strategies.
Raising the bar for professionals and ensuring powerful learning to improve performance across the government will empower the new administration to carry out its policy agenda through better performing federal agencies.
Janet A. Weiss is a professor of public policy and business at the University of Michigan.