OMB performance specialist demands 'more mission for the money'

Shelley Metzenbaum offers rundown of agencies embracing data to save money and boost accountability.

Agencies must "get a little competitive to find ways to deliver more for less" and give the taxpayer "more mission for the money," the Obama administration's performance-driven management specialist told an audience of federal employees Thursday.

President Obama "believes strongly that government makes a difference," said Shelley Metzenbaum, associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget -- hence the president's challenge to his administration to make government "smarter, leaner and more effective" by using goals, data and regular reviews, she said.

Metzenbaum delivered the closing keynote speech at the 15th Excellence in Government conference sponsored by Government Executive Media Group.

"Agencies are filled with people who have chosen a federal career because they want to make the country a better place," which is why performance management can be seen as a strong motivator, said Metzenbaum, as she presented a tour of the horizon of both interagency and agency-specific innovations.

She applauded the way federal managers, unions and chief human capital officers are doing more now to share promising tools so that they can "bring down the stovepipes as we transition to a performance culture and mission-focused performance management."

Her examples of successes ranged from the Commerce Department's reductions in redundant cellphone accounts to the Education Department's reorganization of the student loan program. Tools such as strategic purchasing and demand management "aren't sexy, but they do save money," Metzenbaum said.

The current push for using data to pursue performance-driven management has its roots in the Clinton administration's National Performance Review, but it probably goes back further to the 1960s and 1970s with efforts by Pentagon chief Robert McNamara and budget expert Alice Rivlin, Metzenbaum said. "It has lots of dimensions, such as cutting waste, and hard trade-offs between hard priorities to deliver more mission for the money."

From the governmentwide perspective, she cited recent progress in Vice President Joe Biden's Campaign to Cut Waste, noting that the president's executive order on waste leaves it to agencies to determine specific actions.

New technologies that allow information sharing are essential, she said, describing the ability of a database on to map down to the neighborhood level where Recovery Act funds are being spent. A hot line allows average citizens to use the maps to report suspicions of improper payments.

Education's new online student aid process allows loan applicants instant access to their own tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service, which both speeds the application process and reduces errors, she said. She also commended Education for restructuring, in just six months, the direct student lending program that the Congressional Budget Office says will save more than $60 billion over 10 years.

Commerce and the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that many employees' cellphone accounts were underused and could be canceled, while monthly rates could be reduced by comparing them across the agency, she said. "Bigger buy" discounts are being embraced, among others, by the Homeland Security Department as it purchases uniforms, ammunition, computers and office supplies, and all agencies are conserving paper used in office printers.

Productivity gains can be expected, Metzenbaum said, through the current moves to consolidate expensive-to-maintain federal data centers, which quadrupled since 1998 but are less vital now that much government computing moves to the cloud. Another efficiency gain from cloud computing, Metzenbaum added, is that "agencies can keep up with new technology by letting the providers do the innovating."

Interacting with the government's "customers" through greater use of electronic filing of, for example, tax returns and Social Security payments reduces processing time and errors, a "win-win-win" situation," she said. "But let's keep our eyes on the prize. Agencies must stay connected to communities and be clear what we need to accomplish. But they must also constantly promote effective practices to improve, asking if they're getting the job done and if any other approach would be better."

Performance-driven management also requires raising quality standards and confronting nonperformers, according to Metzenbaum. She cited the Health and Human Services Department's new rules intensifying on-site inspections of Head Start grant recipients. She estimated that as many as a third of Head Start grantees may have to recompete for continued funding.

"It's back to basics, Management 101, setting goals and measuring outcomes," she said. "It means using measurements and constantly asking questions about why something is not working and making adjustments to fix problems." Goal setting should be more than simply a paper exercise, and programs should be reviewed at least quarterly, she said, though agencies could differ on the levels at which reviews are conducted.

While pursuing government that brings "more mission for the money," she said, "we must connect to the American people so that everyone is working hard to be conscientious stewards of taxpayer dollars."