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Despite setbacks, performance efforts yield ‘real results,’ administration says

Oct. 25, 2012 - 08:46PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Shelley Metzenbaum, associate director for performance and personnel management for the Office of Management and Budget, speaks Aug. 17 in Washington, D.C.
Shelley Metzenbaum, associate director for performance and personnel management for the Office of Management and Budget, speaks Aug. 17 in Washington, D.C. (Colin Kelly / Staff)

Campaigning for president in 2008, Barack Obama made two vows to improve government performance: Appoint the nation’s first chief performance officer, and open up the “insular” process of measuring agency performance to public scrutiny.

As president, he quickly followed through on the first — announcing an initial choice for the job even before his January 2009 inauguration.

Almost four years later, however, the job of chief performance officer is a partial role for an Office of Management and Budget official and much of the White House’s performance improvement agenda has played out behind closed doors, with little up-to-date evidence of whether it’s working.

Although the Obama administration touts scattered success stories, “I think they don’t have a deeply refined sense of how the government as a whole is doing,” said Donald Moynihan, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Since 2010, agency officials have been regularly updating OMB on progress toward meeting select groups of “agency priority goals.”

But agency performance improvement officers often see themselves without authority and leadership support for strengthening program effectiveness, according to survey findings summarized in an April 2011 report by the Partnership for Public Service.

More than a year after its public debut in August 2011, performance.gov — a website billed by the administration as a “dynamic” online window for taxpayers to track government improvement efforts — remains mostly a warehouse for bulky reports that agencies were already producing. The most detailed sources of public information among those reports are in agencies’ fiscal 2011 performance reports, which are now almost a year old.

That dearth of publicly available data is the “big gap where I think we’ve gone backward, frankly,” said Robert Shea, who oversaw performance management at OMB during the Bush administration. “Aspirational, ambitious goals are great and failure to achieve them is not fatal, but we want to use that information to have a discussion about whether we’re doing the right thing.”

The administration’s efforts have been “aggressive,” countered Shelley Metzenbaum, the Obama administration’s day-to-day lead on performance issues. By having agencies strive toward meeting the high-priority goals — which now total 103 governmentwide — “we’re delivering real results on the ground,” she said in aninterview.

The Social Security Administration, for example, increased the percentage of applicants who file for retirement and disability benefits online instead of on paper, said Metzenbaum, associate director for performance and personnel management at OMB. The agency had made that a focus in part to meet the public’s desire for convenient electronic service; it was also girding for a jump in disability claims.

In 2011, the number of such claims filed online rose to 33 percent of the total, up more than one-fifth from the year before, according to the agency’s performance review published last year.

After setting a target of enrolling almost 4 million additional children for government-subsidized health insurance, the Health and Human Services Department signed up 4.8 million by the end of fiscal 2011.

In the White House’s 2013 budget request, HHS and other agencies set a new round of goals, such as cutting overall cigarette consumption by 17 percent and increasing the lead time for National Weather Service severe storm warnings from 38 minutes to 42 minutes.

Governmentwide, Metzenbaum said, the White House is generating “a performance culture.” When Obama took office, NASA and the Veterans Affairs Department were the only major agencies that had performance reviews led by their chief operating officers, she said. Now, all do.

Delays

If publicly available evidence of change has so far been slim, the administration intends to begin posting quarterly updates later this fall on agencies’ progress toward meeting their goals, said Metzenbaum, who cited congressional budget cuts as one reason for performance.gov’s slower-than-advertised development. In addition, “agencies are at different levels of sophistication [in] understanding how to display their performance in a meaningful way,” she said. “All have gotten started and are getting better.”

At the same time, the White House has been wrestling with implementation of the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, which incorporates its strategy of requiring agencies to set goals and track movement toward achieving them. In more than 80 pages of instructions released this summer, OMB laid out a timetable for putting the act’s requirements in place over the next several years.

“There has been a lot accomplished,” said Kathryn Newcomer, who heads George Washington University’s school of public policy and public administration. But, she added, “It’s really hard to steer a battleship in terms of management.”

Obama had pledged to create the chief performance officer position during the 2008 campaign. He announced Nancy Killefer, a highly regarded management consultant and former Treasury Department official, as his choice for the job early the next year.

But within a month, Killefer had dropped out of consideration because of a tax problem. Since then, the job has been done by OMB Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients and, when Zients became acting OMB director, by another senior OMB official, Lisa Brown.

Shift from PART

Another drag was a decision to take a dramatic shift toward a less confrontational style of performance management than the Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). PART “drove me nuts,” Metzenbaum said, because it didn’t show performance trends. Those trends are now part of agencies’ quarterly performance reviews.

PART sought to measure the effectiveness of virtually every major government program, with an easy-to-understand five-part scale that ranked each as “effective” to “results not demonstrated.” Bush officials eventually collected the evaluations on a searchable website labeled “Expectmore.gov.”

But PART also provoked time-consuming battles between OMB examiners and agencies over the merits of individual programs. Lawmakers often ignored its findings when making spending decisions.

In its place, the Obama administration opted for agencies to set a small number of goals and then closely follow up with data-driven reviews to monitor progress and make adjustments.

Although the administration didn’t release the first set of goals until early 2010, “it’s a game-changing tool,” Metzenbaum said. “It helps you figure out your opportunities for improving — what’s working, so you can do more of it; what’s not, so you can fix it.”

In 2009, for example, the Interior Department set a target of reducing violent crime on four Indian reservations by at least 5 percent over two years, she said. By the end of last year, violent crime across the four had fallen by an average of 35 percent.

The administration’s strategy is likely to endure under the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. “For better or worse,” Moynihan said, “these are as close to permanent changes to the federal landscape as we’re going to get.”

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