Experts call on agencies to narrow performance goals

Witnesses tell Senate task force that the government’s performance management system in many cases is understood only by insiders.

Federal agencies have far too many complex performance goals and should streamline their top priorities and objectives to bring about optimal results for taxpayers, witnesses told a Senate task force on Wednesday.

Under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, agencies were required to set myriad goals encompassing virtually every area of their work. The Obama administration has asked agencies to narrow that focus, honing exclusively on a series of "high-priority performance goals."

But a top outside adviser to the Obama administration told the Senate Budget Committee's Task Force on Government Performance that more still can be done to reorganize the government's performance management structure.

"There are still too many so-called high-priority performance goals -- 128, to be exact -- and many are decipherable only to people inside government," said John Podesta, a White House chief of staff under President Clinton who now is president of the Center for American Progress, a progressive advocacy group. "Fewer, more resonant goals would raise their profile and better communicate government priorities to the public."

Podesta said the high-priority goals that agencies have set thus far "leave much to be desired" because they are overly technical and focus on activities more than results.

Task Force Chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., agreed that agencies are trying to accomplish too much and in the end, achieving too little. "If you have 50 priorities, then you have no priorities," Warner said.

Podesta said agencies should set no more than five high-priority goals, with one targeting operational savings and assigned to the chief operating officer, who would have budget and decision-making authority.

"These goals should state in clear, quantifiable terms what the agency will achieve for the American people and how much money it will save by cutting waste in procurement, information technology and other operations," Podesta said.

Witnesses suggested Congress took a step in the right direction last year with passage of the GPRA Modernization Act, which requires agencies to set clear, cross-cutting goals during a two-year time frame. Agencies also must identify the programs, tax expenditures and regulations that contribute to the given goal. Performance reviews will be required quarterly and will be posted on a single government website.

Witnesses outlined a litany of problems with the existing performance management system, including a host of duplicative programs (some of which work against one another), a lack of accountability from departmental leaders, and a failure to connect program outcomes with future appropriations.

The system must have been developed "by someone on crack," said Robert Shea, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.

"Although it may seem obvious, traditionally agencies have had difficulty setting ambitious outcome-oriented goals, either because measuring outcomes is hard and requires coordination across multiple programs or departments, or because being accountable for difficult-to-achieve outcomes is scary," said Shea, now a principal with Grant Thornton LLP.

The lack of high-level attention to outcome-oriented budgeting and evaluation also can be frustrating to the federal workforce, he suggested.

"Congress and the executive branch are focused more often on policy or politics, rather than on the sometimes tedious, yet important work of managing and monitoring program progress," said Shea, who led the Bush administration's government performance initiative. "This reality frustrates agency and department leadership producing reports, data and analysis, because it means they invest considerable time, energy and money on information no one will use."

The government's top watchdog told the task force that presidential administrations and Congress have created programs before establishing what they should accomplish and the metrics for measuring success. "It's not always clear what these programs want to achieve," said Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office.

Earlier this month, GAO released a report on overlap and duplication among programs throughout the bureaucracy. That report, Dodaro said, was downloaded 90,000 times in its first day of public availability -- three times more than any previous GAO report.

Warner suggested that the administration develop an early warning mechanism for alerting Congress when a new program under consideration appears to be duplicative to an existing initiative. Dodaro agreed with the concept but noted that there is no single governmentwide inventory of every federal program and its purpose.