Agencies Really Are Missing an Opportunity by Downplaying Performance Information
Does the federal government keep its promises for improved performance? How would we know? Does anyone really care?
Shelley Metzenbaum’s recent article for Government Executive, “A Missed Opportunity,” highlights a conundrum facing government improvement geeks for nearly three decades. She laments that federal agencies’ quarterly performance updates for their priority goals “deserve more attention.” She says this lack of attention is a “missed opportunity” to engage the allies and advocates for these priority goals, help agencies learn how to improve and inform the public.
But does the public care about overall performance in the abstract or does it really care more about specifics—such as increased broadband access or reduced homelessness? Is it better to provide bite-sized chunks of information targeted to interested parties or an overall scorecard for the general public? What’s the best strategy for shining a flashlight on government performance in ways that engage the public’s support for reaching these goals?
A 2010 law requires federal agencies to publicly identify two-year goals for a small handful of priority initiatives and asks the Office of Management and Budget to post quarterly progress reports on these initiatives. Agencies have designated 82 such goals. In addition, OMB itself has identified three government-wide presidential management priorities where it is responsible for implementation and progress reports. Over the years, OMB has created a public-facing one-stop website called Performance.gov that makes this and more government performance information readily available.
Performance.gov is a Great One-Stop, But . . .
Performance.gov has improved greatly over the past decade, responding to criticism by the Government Accountability Office over the years that the website did not meet the government’s own usability tests. Recently, OMB has significantly improved the site’s design and usability with the help of the U.S. Digital Service.
In addition to the website—which is fairly static—OMB now makes much greater use of social media, regularly using Twitter, LinkedIn and its own blog to highlight progress on agency and cross-agency goals.
In addition to links to agency goals and plans, Performance.gov also hosts several cross-agency communities, such as the community of customer experience champions across the government as well as the Performance Improvement Council.
Some goals are fantastic examples of progress reporting. The cross-agency goal to improve customer experience delivery focuses on specific government services in specific agencies. It reports progress and improvements on each. For example, one such service improvement at the Veterans Affairs Department now allows veterans to use a mobile app to view claims and schedule medical appointments.
But creating a supply of performance information does not necessarily translate to a demand for it. That’s a different challenge. Is it because the performance information is viewed as self-serving for the administration? Not a reliable source of information? Puff pieces?
Performance.gov’s Ideal Target Audience
Metzenbaum says “It is time for those who believe in the federal government and want it to succeed to . . . give attention to the quarterly performance updates, longer-term strategic and shorter-term annual plans, and annual performance reports.”
But who are these “believers?” What do they really want? And are they even the right audience? Understanding how effectively government is delivering results is not just a “good government” thing. Before President Biden’s inauguration, The Washington Post’s David Von Drehle wrote that, beyond COVID-19, “Another disease in need of a cure is the anemia of official credibility. This has been a long time coming.” He went on to say: “Institutions regain credibility by delivering results. Trust can’t be demanded from a free people; it must be earned.”
But creating a supply of credible performance data does not necessarily translate into a demand for it. Thought is needed as to who is the specific target audience, and that would help define the best approach.
There seems to be three potential approaches to presenting information that may encourage a demand for more: better storytelling, crafting a dashboard, and/or creating a scorecard. Each have had some moderate success in capturing broader attention, but also pose risks in fostering potential “cheating” by agencies to look better.
Each of these three potential approaches assume different audiences—inside or outside government—and different purposes. They could be used in tandem or blended by different providers for different purposes such as learning, transparency and accountability.
A Platform Approach. A web-based platform is a way of publishing and consuming datasets via the use of standards, application programming interfaces and common building blocks. Examples include Data.gov and Usaspending.gov. Platforms allow easy access by third parties, which then can format the data in innovative ways. Platforms, however, tend to require some expertise in finding and interpreting data.
Some platforms go a step further and provide some descriptive information along with the data. This is the approach currently reflected in OMB’s Performance.gov website. However, there’s little fanfare when progress is updated each quarter and there isn’t much of an investment in using storytelling to convey the information. The data tends to feel diffuse, with no bottom line. For example, the quarterly update for the agency priority goal to “improve child well-being” is 16 pages long, with no clear assessment as to whether progress is being made or not.
In a follow-up exchange with Metzenbaum, she told me she favors this descriptive approach because it could ideally engage policy advocates and “goal allies” in order to “strengthen goal-setting and goal-framing and improve progress on them.”
In my view, the website could take a step further by adopting a more compelling story-telling slant, for example short videos by various goal owners, to engage a wider audience. The goals are updated on a quarterly cycle and there are enough priority goals to refresh stories every workday. These storytelling efforts should be led by the agencies, not OMB. One example might be the quarterly progress and results webcasts that Paul Lawrence used when he was undersecretary for benefits at the Veterans Affairs Department. Using this approach, he would engage over 10,000 people for each of his quarterly webcasts.
A Dashboard Approach. The use of dashboards tends to be a high-level summary of performance and progress, without judgements made – but also oftentimes without the context needed to understand what is happening. To be seen as more credible, it probably should be undertaken by a nonpartisan third party, such as a nonprofit or foundation.
For example, the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service translates annual federal employee survey data collected by the Office of Personnel Management and has created a highly visible Best Places to Work report that ranks federal agencies. It showcases these agency rankings, along with best practices, at a major event that is picked up by national media. More recently, the Partnership created an Agency Performance Dashboard but the dashboard doesn’t yet track performance beyond what is reported in federal employee surveys. It could be the beginning of a more visible initiative to educate the public on government performance.
Several potential downsides of a dashboard are that it identifies areas needing attention but does not indicate whether progress is being made or include strategies for how to improve.
A Scorecard Approach. Government is familiar with scorecards. They were used with some success by the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s, which used them as a way to focus on accountability, with judgements made by OMB as to agency progress. More recently, Congress and the Government Accountability Office have been using a semiannual scorecard to nudge progress on technology reform since 2015. While the Bush management scorecard was dismissed by some as a politically-biased effort, agency progress on the congressional/GAO technology scorecard has been showcased in hearings and the media.
Metzenbaum argues that this approach is not optimal, especially if undertaken by OMB, because it steals “attention from efforts to make progress on outcome objectives.” She says the emphasis should be on improvement, not on achieving a target. She says agencies need to be able to see OMB as a partner, not a judge. Also, she fears that agencies would respond by setting “timid targets” that they know they could successfully meet.
Nevertheless, scorecards do engage members of Congress and the public far more effectively than dashboards. However, given the potential for negative incentives, if a scorecard effort were to be undertaken by a congressional panel, it probably should be done soon so Democratically-controlled oversight committees can create a baseline so the Biden administration would not see this as a politically-driven scorecard if undertaken by a future Republican-controlled Congress.
Engaging the Public
Metzenbaum’s column is a call to action. She says we need to “enrich public understanding of what government is doing.” While Performance.gov is a valuable platform for agency performance information, OMB should not have to be the sole voice in telling the performance stories of government, and the primary focus should not necessarily be to share performance information within the government or with “policy advocates.” To tell the story more broadly may require multiple approaches with a wider range of story tellers and analysts.
Whichever approaches are used, and whoever undertakes these efforts, the over-arching purpose should not ignore the importance of engaging the public in ways that create educated citizen-consumers. Ideally, in the long run this should help improve trust in government and its institutions, as suggested by The Washington Post’s Von Drehle.
Whatever is done needs to go beyond just posting data on a platform website. It should be a public event with media, not just a stealth quarterly posting of progress reports. The Partnership’s Best Places to Work event, report and announcement may be a good model. The model of congressional technology reform hearings could also be a way to better shine a flashlight on government performance.