Those who want the federal government to succeed at performance goals should act more like investors in the stock market or as partners or suppliers.

Those who want the federal government to succeed at performance goals should act more like investors in the stock market or as partners or suppliers. Matthias Kulka / Getty Images

A Missed Opportunity: The Problem With Ignoring Government Performance Information

Federal agencies’ quarterly performance updates, short- and long-term strategic plans, and annual performance reports deserve more attention.

Early in July, the federal government released quarterly performance updates for the priority goals of federal agencies. Sadly, few paid attention. Not goal allies who care about and might want to contribute to advancing these objectives. Not advocates who care about the federal government’s goals and strategies. Not members of Congress or their staff nor even businesses selling goods and services to the government.

Contrast this to the flurry of attention the media, advocates and Congress give to the president’s budget request every year, even though the budget only discusses proposed spending before Congress decides actual funding levels. Imagine if investors and financial analysts similarly ignored quarterly corporate reports to inform their decisions about what to buy and sell and instead looked at proposed corporate spending.

The lack of attention to the federal government’s goals and strategies, and its quarterly and annual performance updates, is a missed opportunity. More attention to this information has the potential to increase public return on government spending if goal allies pay attention to the information and come forward to contribute relevant expertise, effort and resources. This information can also be helpful to learning and collaborative efforts to discover ways to boost results.

Attention to the federal government’s goals and strategies can also enrich public understanding of what government is doing, why it’s doing it and how, in addition to strengthening democratic accountability by making it easier for citizens and their elected representatives to provide feedback to government agencies. Should, for example, any of the goals be more or less ambitious? Should they be fewer or different?

Consider, for example, some of the federal government’s current priority goals:

  • Expanding affordable broadband access to more than 550,000 households before October 2023;
  • Reducing homelessness 15% from 2020 levels by September 30, 2023;
  • Completing key steps to enable 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030;
  • Improving child well-being, especially in underserved or marginalized populations and communities; and,
  • Achieving an average annual reduction of 2 deaths of children under five per 1,000 live births in priority countries by September 30, 2023.

These and many more two-year priority goals are posted on the federal government’s hub for federal performance information, So, too, are agencies’ longer term strategic goals and objectives, as well as the annual goals for which the president’s budget proposes funding. In addition, discusses cross-agency priority goals such as improving customers’ experience with the National Park Service and the Social Security Administration. It also describes communities of people and organizations collaborating to learn from and help each other improve process quality in selected areas. not only makes it easy to find agency goals. It also explains why goals and strategies were chosen, provides quarterly progress updates for priority goals and annual updates for strategic goals and objectives, reflects on lessons learned, and describes planned next steps.

The site is clearly a work in progress with room for improvement. Still, much progress has been made since it launched following passage of the 2010 Government Performance and Results Act Modernization Act. The site now provides information for almost all federal agencies, not just Cabinet departments and very large agencies, for example. In addition, it links to agency learning agendas, identifying knowledge gaps and priorities for filling them as required by the 2018 Foundations of Evidence Act. Also, some of the priority goal quarterly updates, such as USAID’s 2-year priority goal of reducing child deaths, lay out a compelling, multi-pronged implementation plan. 

In the future, it would be good to see make it easier to find goals and performance updates for major Cabinet department components such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It would also be helpful for each priority and strategic goal and objective to link not just to agency learning agendas but also to evidence including impact evaluations and descriptive studies relevant to goal selection, priority-setting and strategy choice as well as to relevant data sets, data analyses and report generators. Providing links to this information for each goal would help those across but also outside the federal government hoping to contribute to progress on these goals. 

Of course, the kind of attention given to this information will matter. If performance information is used more to punish and embarrass than to provide feedback and offer effort and insights aimed at improvement, it will likely encourage agencies to adopt timid targets they know they can meet rather than the kinds of stretch targets previously shown to boost performance significantly in both the public and private sector.

It is time for those who believe in the federal government and want it to succeed to act more like investors in the stock market or as partners or suppliers. Give attention to the quarterly performance updates, longer-term strategic and shorter-term annual plans, and annual performance reports. Provide constructive feedback on the goals and strategies. Consider also and especially if and how to contribute to progress on these goals with effort, intelligence, resources and action at the national, state, regional and local level.

Shelley Metzenbaum, former associate director of performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.