Link between programs’ funding, performance ratings is tenuous

Analysis finds that more than 70 percent of programs slated for cuts in the Bush administration’s fiscal 2009 budget proposal were rated as “adequate” or better.

The Office of Management and Budget conducted a performance evaluation in 2007 for a Homeland Security program that provides grants and training assistance to local firefighters. The program rated well, earning perfect scores in two of four categories and high marks in the other two. Ultimately, the grant program received a grade of "effective" -- the highest ranking in the Bush administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool.

But that grade was not enough to salvage the program's budget. In his fiscal 2009 budget submitted to Congress earlier this month, President Bush requested a 60 percent cut in funding for the federal assistance program, from $750 million to $300 million.

The administration says PART is one of several factors that influence and inform the budget process, helping to determine which programs receive more or less funding. But an analysis by Government Executive indicates the correlation between PART scores and the administration's proposed budget often is tenuous.

Of the more than 1,000 federal programs that have been evaluated using the report card system, 358 would receive less money than Congress appropriated in fiscal 2008 if the president's 2009 budget was enacted. About 5 percent of those 358 programs were rated "ineffective" and nearly 23 percent were rated "results not demonstrated", indicating they had not developed acceptable goals or collected enough data to determine performance.

Of the 85 PART-rated programs that the administration recommended for termination, nearly half were rated at least "adequate" or better. This is a 12 percent increase from the 2007 budget request, according to figures cited in a February 2006 report from the National Taxpayers Union.

"At some point, you need to question the value of PART," said Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit watchdog group in Washington that tracks government spending. "If it's not part of the budget process and doesn't affect the level of funding a program gets, you have to wonder how useful it is."

OMB could not confirm Government Executive's figures, but the agency provided a different metric for gauging the allocation of funds compared to PART rankings.

According to figures supplied by OMB, Congress' 2008 enacted budget increased funding by 4 percent for "ineffective" programs and 8 percent for those rated "results not demonstrated." Meanwhile, the administration's proposed budget would cut funding by 15 percent for "ineffective" programs and by 5 percent for programs with "results not demonstrated." Programs operating at least "adequately" received roughly the same level of funding by Congress and the administration over the past two years.

"In comparison to Congress, which has indiscriminately increased funding regardless of performance, our fiscal 2009 proposal has targeted funding away from 'ineffective' and 'RND' programs, while increasing funding to programs that have demonstrated results," said OMB spokeswoman Jane Lee.

Across the spectrum, federal programs are doing well on their PART evaluations, which are essentially questionnaires about overall performance and management.

Since PART began in 2004, 785 programs -- or 78 percent of those evaluated -- have received grades of "adequate," "moderately effective" or "effective." But less than half of the programs the administration views as efficient would receive more funding in the fiscal 2009 proposal. The funding for most of those would remain the same, or decrease.

OMB officials insist that funding decisions are influenced by a number of factors, including a program's effectiveness, its priority in the administration's agenda and whether its services are duplicated elsewhere in the government.

Robert Shea, OMB's associate director for management, said no program reductions or terminations were made as a direct result of a PART assessment. In some cases, he said, the assessment may have uncovered information that helped influence budget decisions, but other factors were weighed as well.

"Rarely are you able to make a very clear case that a program is not worth investing any more money in because of the performance report," Shea said. "Rather, it encourages more and more rigorous evaluation of programs so that we can have evidence to make the case. When we have clear evidence, we make that link, but it's not as easy as we would like it to be."

While the funding of some well-managed programs may be cut, overall they are receiving more financial support than their poorly performing counterparts, according to OMB. Higher-rated programs -- "adequate" or better -- would receive an $80 billion net increase in the 2009 budget while programs rated "ineffective" or "results not demonstrated" would receive a net decrease of $8 billion, Shea said.

Often, a program's rating may disguise the need for additional funding. For example, the IRS' Earned Income Tax Credit Compliance Program has consistently underperformed, with roughly 30 percent of all payments made in error, according to its PART evaluation. Shea blamed the problem on poor management and argued that increased funding is necessary to turn around management deficiencies.

On the other hand, the Agriculture Department's Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides food packages to low-income women, infants, children and the elderly, has failed to demonstrate results, in part because it lacks clear goals, Shea said.

Rather than pour additional funds into a program the administration does not believe is working, it would terminate the initiative and instead provide more funds to Food Stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children programs, which have goals similar to the commodity program. Last week, OMB released a new budget document outlining reasons for specific program cuts and terminations.

"We want to make programs work better and achieve agencies' results," Shea said. "[PART] can be useful in determining which programs achieve those goals and to make funding decisions based on compelling needs. These programs are key examples."

But some good-government advocates said that politics, rather than needs or performance, often dictate how much funding a program receives.

Every administration and Congress has their pet projects that they will fund despite program performance, said David Williams, policy director for the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, based in Washington. Likewise, certain programs never fit comfortably into an administration's agenda and always will be vulnerable to cuts.

Williams said that while decisions need to be made case-by-case, there must be a stronger correlation between program performance and funding. "PART can't be an island," he said. "It needs to be connected to the mainland of budgeting."

Ultimately, PART scores and funding requests may have little effect on the budget eventually enacted by Congress. Last year, the administration proposed 141 programs for major reductions or elimination. Congress enacted only 29 of those recommendations. The White House received only marginally better support in 2007 and 2006, when Republicans controlled both congressional chambers.

Despite the administration's shaky batting average in winning over Congress when it comes to its funding requests, OMB Director Jim Nussle remains optimistic.

"There is a track record here that if we send up good information and ideas about the outcomes, whether or not a program is working well under [PART], we do get good cooperation," Nussle said a White House briefing in early February. "This is not small money, and it is a worthwhile exercise. Even if Congress disagrees … I think it's an important thing we ought to do."