Improving government performance is not exactly the kind of topic that packs 20,000-seat stadiums and stirs voters into a frenzy. So it's not surprising that the leading candidates for the White House generally discuss performance management only in terms of broader policy goals, such as responding more efficiently to disasters or mandating that all large federal contracts are competitively bid.
While specifics may be lacking on the campaign trail, the challenges and nuances of performance management will be unavoidable by the time the 44th president takes office -- and they could go a long way in determining the next administration's success, suggested professionals in the field.
Among the first priorities for the new government will be what to do with the Bush administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool, which uses the answers to a simple questionnaire to rate the effectiveness of all federal programs.
While critics suggest PART is a politically biased tool designed to promote the administration's ideological policies, most agree that the system itself has provided a great deal of useful data and appears to have improved the performance of hundreds of programs previously unable to demonstrate results.
And while the next administration may change the questionnaire or scrap the program's name, PART's increased focus on critical evaluations and program results will be difficult to dismiss completely, said Jon Desenberg, senior policy director for the Performance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
"For the incoming administration, and doesn't matter who it is, we really see an increased capability and an increased ability to meet the policy goals of whoever is elected president," Desenberg said. "There is some trepidation from people in government about what will happen next. From our perspective, this is just increasing the capacity of government to meet any of its policy goals."
Desenberg directs the Transitions in Governance Project, a coalition of major federal organizations that is developing management recommendations for the next administration. The group, which has contacted the campaigns of all three remaining presidential hopefuls, also plans to issue a white paper on performance management recommendations this summer.
Those suggestions likely will include eliminating the subjectivity of program examiners, developing common performance outcomes across federal agencies, and expanding the boundaries of government to include state and local officials, as well as the private sector.
Desenberg suggested that for federal workers to truly embrace the next performance management system, it must avoid a "gotcha" style in which the focus is on criticizing underperforming programs and instead should celebrate milestones and successes of those programs meeting or exceeding their goals.
The next president, he said, also must move the proverbial performance management ball so the goal goes beyond measuring ability to measuring results.
The Bush administration, for example, has made progress in gathering data, whether in the form of performance reports, quarterly evaluations or agency score cards, Desenberg said. The White House also recently required federal agencies to designate a performance improvement officer charged with overseeing their strategic plans and determining the realistic likelihood of achieving program goals with available funding. This information will be shared among agencies at monthly meetings of a new Performance Improvement Council and made public on the Web.
Despite the improved transparency, agency heads rarely apply this performance data in their larger decision-making process, Desenberg said.
"We still see management decisions made on tradition or intuitive thinking," he said. "I often hear agency people say, 'The data says one thing, but our management really believes something else.' Or they're fearful that people will be upset if we stop a certain activity even though we now have performance measurement data that shows us that certain things are effective and certain things are not effective. We really should stop doing some of the things that are not effective, but we are hesitant to go that next mile and to take that next step."
Porter Shomo, director of Cognos Federal, an IBM company that provides the government with performance management solutions, said government has a "rear view mirror" approach to program data in which the focus is on how things were done in the past, rather than on how to accomplish them in the future.
Changing that approach, he said, will involve navigating one of the most controversial aspects of performance management: tying program performance to the annual budget appropriations process.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., twice has sponsored bills that tried to link PART scores to congressional funding, but they failed to gain much support from either side of the aisle. He plans to introduce a similar measure again this year, said Allard spokesman Steve Wymer.
"It's about getting better," Shomo said. "That's what corporations do. If they don't get better, they go out of business. Government has been doing some of that throughout time and they are starting to pick up the pace now and take it a lot more seriously. I think tying results to the budget is important. It gives credibility to the performance management system."
Shomo and Desenberg agree that the United States could learn a lesson from the Canadian parliamentary system, in which legislators cannot introduce a new government program until they prove it does not duplicate an existing program. Finding a way to compare performance, and reducing duplicative efforts, should be a priority in the coming years, they said.
"Citizens would be ashamed, and many probably are, when you look at other countries that are using performance measures so much more dynamically as part of the budget process," Desenberg said. "It's really embarrassing."
The Bush administration has encouraged the next president to continue PART and its performance improvement officer initiative. But the suggestions have yet to resonate on the campaign trail, and the next administration is under no obligation to keep the programs.
No matter the result in November -- or the direction of the next government -- the principles of performance management will continue as a way to deliver measurable results to taxpayers, Shomo said.
"There's too much good in the goals of a performance management system to politicize which administration came up with the idea or who is better at it," he said. "We'll see performance management continue long after this administration and whatever administration follows it because it's too important."