Federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients discusses features of the newly launched website during an interview in his office Aug. 25. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
A year ago, the Obama administration heralded plans to launch a new website that would provide "unmatched transparency on government performance" — a site that would fuse data-driven reviews and information on agency objectives, key performance indicators and milestones.
After a 10-month delay and $1.7 million in development costs, performance.gov finally debuted last month — to sharply mixed reviews on whether it lives up to that initial billing.
"Underwhelming," said Gary Therkildsen, an analyst with OMB Watch, a liberal-leaning advocacy group.
"It's very glossy, but there's no ‘there' there," said Jon Desenberg, senior consulting director at The Performance Institute, a private think tank. He likened the site to a political campaign brochure.
Conspicuously absent is a comprehensive rundown of agencies' progress toward more than 120 "near-term high-priority performance goals" that the Obama administration outlined in its 2011 budget proposal.
These goals include: identifying 500 struggling schools that are adopting high-quality reforms; reducing the population of homeless veterans from 131,000 in 2009 to 59,000 by 2012; and training 120,000 Americans for green jobs by 2012. That performance information remains shielded and available only to federal managers.
The site also offers no comprehensive assessment of federal programs' performance.
Instead, the site, which is run by the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, offers anecdotal summaries of what various agencies have done to improve financial management, human resources, sustainability and other areas. It also includes performance reports and other information previously buried on individual agency websites.
While the site offers some new information — such as measures on applicant satisfaction with the federal hiring process — much of the content involves repackaging of already available data. And the site features plugs for administration initiatives, such as the "Campaign to Cut Waste."
But plans are afoot to add more data during the next year, Federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients said in a recent interview.
"It's a dynamic site that will get richer and richer over time," Zients said. Not only does performance.gov offer a window for taxpayers to hold the administration accountable, he added, but agencies will be able to learn from each other what works and what doesn't.
Robert Shea, who spearheaded the Bush administration's attempt at performance measurement — the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) — said any attempt to foster governmentwide performance yardsticks counts as "a heroic undertaking."
To Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, the new website represents "a world-class initiative." Although there's a long way to go, "no other country has created such a powerful tool" for publicly connecting government goals with agency outcomes, Kettl said in an email.
Although created more than a year ago, performance.gov had previously been accessible only to federal employees on a password-protected basis. Last September, Zients had predicted the site would be open to the public last fall; he attributed the delayed public launch to a combination of funding cuts and the need to adapt the site to requirements of the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, signed into law in January. Alongside the public site, an internal management site remains available only to federal employees, who can review additional agency data.
OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said funding setbacks by Congress were partly responsible for the website's delay. When Congress earlier this year slashed the administration request for electronic government funding from $34 million to $8 million, performance. gov's share was reduced significantly, she added.
Little of substance so far
Shea, now a principal with consultant Grant Thornton, gave the White House feedback during the development of performance.gov. In an interview last week, he praised the site's attractiveness and the volume of available data. But he labeled "unacceptable" the administration's decision to withhold information on agencies' progress toward the high-priority goals announced nearly a year and a half ago in President Obama's 2011 budget request.
"You would have expected to have a lot of that detail now," he said. "In our business, it's a very tough step for politicians to take to hold themselves accountable for clear measurable goals."
Since the high-priority goals were announced in February 2010, the administration has had little to say about how agencies are doing. In explaining the rationale for keeping that information off performance.gov, OMB official Shelley Metzenbaum cited financial constraints and the need to put the data in compliance with the GPRA Modernization Act.
A status update will be included in a report set to be released next spring, said Metzenbaum, OMB associate director for performance and personnel management. Agencies are also working on a fresh set of goals, she said which will be tracked on performance.gov.
"I think what they want to do is get that right," said John Kamensky, senior fellow at the IBM Center for The Business of Government.
Information posted to performance.gov will factor into budget decisions, but not be the last word, Metzenbaum said.
The site will also be the platform for agency reporting required by the GPRA Modernization Act. The new law requires agencies to conduct quarterly reviews of their progress to selected goals, which has already begun, but the results of those reviews are not made public. Under OMB guidance issued last month, however, only a "brief summary" of those findings will be made public.
In some cases, those reviews represent "individuals' judgments that need follow-up," Metzenbaum said. "If you make that public, you're not necessarily going to have ... accurate information out there," she said.
She pointed to information already available on the site — such as evidence of wide disparities in agencies' success in shortening hiring times — as evidence that the administration will not cherry-pick data.
"We're being open when we're not making all of our goals, she said. "But we're trying to do this in a way that's not punitive unless somebody's really a slacker."