Paul Posner is director of the public administration program at George Mason University and former director for the Government Accountability Office's work on federal budget and intergovernmental programs. ()
Several weeks ago, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) joined with OMB to sponsor a conference on the new OMB Strategic Objective Reviews. Starting with the new strategic plans to be published in 2014, every agency will be required to conduct annual reviews of their strategic objectives.
The reviews will highlight those areas where the agency has made noteworthy progress or faces significant challenges. Like the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) of the Bush Administration, it is hoped that these regular reviews will provide input into budget formulation and cause agencies to take stock periodically of changes needed in their programs, authorities and data collection.
OMB is to be applauded for initiating a systematic review process once again. Unlike the PART, they have broadened the unit of analysis from the narrow realm of budget accounts and activities to the broader world of strategic objectives and policy outcomes. Also, unlike these earlier reviews, OMB has avoided imposing top down scoring schemes that so often inspire agencies to emphasize compliance over learning and innovation.
I am sure that much will be learned Version 1.0 of strategic planning reviews. Here are some major questions that may lead to changes in Version 2.0 next year:
Budget integration - How will agencies and OMB crosswalk from the broad strategic objectives to the more prosaic budget accounting structure? While starting with the strategic perspective is valuable, at some point the failure to systematically link strategic objectives with budget accounts may limit the relevance and influence of strategic reviews for the budget process itself
Crosscutting strategic goals – How will OMB prompt agencies to be sufficiently broad in their strategic objective reviews? Any review of federal strategic goals and outcomes should recognize the cross cutting nature of many federal high level plans. As Christopher Mihm of GAO said at the NAPA-OMB conference, any agency whose strategic objectives are defined as being contained within the walls of their own boundaries is not sufficiently realizing the collaborative nature of most federal policies.
Tax expenditures – How can OMB induce the agencies to take ownership of tax expenditures which vitally affect many federal strategic objectives? Tax expenditures now equal the total of federal discretionary spending. In housing, tax expenditures account for over 75percent of federal activity, even though HUD has little or no administrative role in these subsidies. Even OMB has failed to consider these subsidies during formulation of the President’s budget, leaving tax expenditures to Treasury.
Crosscutting budgeting – Ultimately, how can OMB ensure that its own budget review becomes organized along the lines of major federal missions and outcomes? While the President’s budget may always use agencies as the unit of analysis, it is not unreasonable to expect that selected major policy areas and objectives might be singled out for more crosscutting focus. One place to start is the cross agency priority goals established by OMB following 2010 congressional performance legislation. Such goals as providing more effective and targeted job training and expanded broadband access could replace agency and program as the new focus for a portfolio budget process focused on all major federal programs and tools related to these broad outcomes.
Avoiding overload – How can OMB ensure that the reviews are sufficiently selective to promote attention to their findings? PART’s ambition to cover all budget accounts with reviews ultimately drowned the budget process with too much information covering too many programs that served to dilute its impact. The new reviews can retain value if they focus on a select number of policies and areas every year.
Engaging the Congress – How will OMB and the agencies ensure that Congress buys in to the reviews? This was the Achilles heel of many prior executive reforms. PART reviews and annual GPRA performance plans are both worked by OMB and the agencies under the cloak of predecisional secrecy that screens out Congressional committees from meaningful input. One possible approach would be for OMB to seek out key congressional committees and leadership to gain their take on the few strategic objectives and policy areas that have high interest on the Hill. Reviews in these areas may gain more traction if Congress has a role in shaping their selection and focus.
Any serious focus on outcomes inevitably forces all actors in the process to think and act in a more cross cutting manner. While such a process can deliver real value, the barriers cannot be underestimated. In a real sense, budget collaboration across agencies, branches of government and even within OMB may call for nothing short of an institutional personality transplant. But budgeting has been slowly shifting in this direction for years and we can hope that the new strategic reviews may be another incremental step in the right direction.