Agency buy-in called key to success of Government Performance Act

Mike Theiler/Newscom

Agency officials will be under unprecedented pressure to step forward and identify ineffective programs under their own jurisdictions, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said on Wednesday at a panel discussion marking the release of a Center for American Progress report on how best to implement the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.

Warner, a strong backer of the new law, serves on the Senate Budget Committee Task Force on Government Performance. The best way to reduce inefficiencies and overlap within and among federal agencies, he said, is for the Office of Management and Budget to head off inevitable agency "pushback" through collaboration. That means "giving longtime federal employees more input in the process" by getting "all shareholders together to acknowledge publicly what many say privately, that someone else is doing it better," Warner said.

The former Virginia governor and communications industry executive spoke at an event sponsored by CAP, a progressive think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, to release its report titled, "The Secret to Programs That Work: New Tools for Program Design and Evaluation."

Warner said he was excited to see so many "government performance nerds" attend a discussion that usually "makes people's eyes glaze over." But given a recent events -- a new Republican House majority, an urgent focus on reducing the federal deficit, and a general public skeptical of government's basic competence -- the timing, Warner said, could be right for GPRA to become "the biggest little bill no one's ever heard of" and a significant accomplishment of the 111th Congress.

What's required to prove that "we're serious this time," Warner said, is limiting the number of goals agency managers use to evaluate programs so that they don't become so voluminous as to be meaningless; reporting performance data quarterly rather than annually on a user-friendly website; eliminating repetitious requirements; getting a start on mapping out programs that overlap across the government (some 44 for workforce development alone, he said); and making sure every agency identifies a single performance officer who can work with OMB and Congress.

Recalling his efforts leading Virginia during a budget crisis when he sought to focus public attention by closing Department of Motor Vehicles offices one day per week, Warner said such "a shot across the bow" might be necessary at the federal level. House Republican proposals for wide budget cuts, he said, "may not be as thoughtful and targeted as they could be," but they could supply the needed "shock wave."

Warner said he got a taste of the difficulty in eliminating programs when he sought to combine previous target lists of 17 questionable programs taken from OMB during both the Obama and Bush administrations. He got nowhere. One lesson learned during the 17 years since enactment of the first Government Performance and Results Act, he added, is that the "focus must be relentless," and that Congress should know that when the executive branch's "champion of performance review gets tired out," the process will go on -- even beyond the current administration.

Warner acknowledged to questioners that the jurisdiction over agencies of a dozen or more congressional committees is a big reason for "the spaghetti mess we deal with in oversight." He added: "Some eggs will have to be broken [and] we have to show some early wins."

The CAP report, part of its Doing What Works project, is the result of six months of consultation with 200 experts. It is an effort to lay out uniform checklists of questions that multiple agencies could work with to assemble ongoing data on program effectiveness. The questions, Warner noted, might seem basic, but they could produce useful data if applied uniformly.

Past efforts at performance review, say authors Jitinder Kohli, William D. Eggers and John Griffith, suffered from a failure to approach programs skeptically, as well as insufficient evidence, poor implementation planning, misunderstood incentives, and insufficient performance assessment and refinement.

"At the root of each of these failures was faulty design," they wrote. "Just as architectural designs can look good on paper but falter in the real world, poorly designed programs are often a blueprint for disaster." The new performance act, by requiring "the executive branch to work with Congress to adopt outcome-based governmentwide goals and issue regular progress reports," addresses the key weaknesses of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, which has generated reams of program data, but little insight into outcomes."

In a panel discussion that followed, specialists expressed high hopes that the new law will achieve a breakthrough. Jonathan Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said OMB in the past has lacked systematic tools for setting up clear choices for policymakers. The defenders of programs, who always come out of the woodwork when their jobs or legacies are threatened, offered arguments that were basically "faith-based," Breul said.

Beth Blauer, director of the StateStat program for the Office of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, stressed that routinization of data, derived from consistent questions asked by program managers, makes it harder for executives to ignore the results. "But the measurements and goals must be clear and openly arrived at in order to be meaningful to practitioners, the front-line innovators who work at the front end of the process," she said.

Asked whether Republicans in Congress are as enthusiastic as Warner for performance reviews, Robert Shea, who was associate director of OMB under George W. Bush, said, "There is a magic combination" of events that improves chances for success. "But more groundwork needs to be laid to expand the effort beyond the budget committee," he said.

CAP also released a separate report Wednesday. "Performance Reviews That Work" summarizes performance measurement efforts at NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec