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Lawmakers press OMB for performance metrics

Mar. 12, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
OMB Nomination Hearing MWM 20131002
OMB Director Beth F. Cobert offered no information on how new performance goals will be measured at a recent Senate hearing. (Mike Morones)

The Obama administration isn’t short on goals for better managing IT projects, improving acquisition practices or enhancing digital services for citizens.

In fact, the Office of Management and Budget announced this week a new round of cross-agency and agency-specific goals for tackling those issues and others.

The president’s 2015 budget request contained nearly 100 agency priority goals, including reducing healthcare-associated infections and increasing energy efficient housing, Beth Cobert, OMB’s deputy director for management told Senate lawmakers Wednesday.

However, her testimony contained no specific metrics for tracking new goals like cost and quality benchmarks for human resources, acquisition, IT and property management.

“That’s the thing that’s missing,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Cobert. “I know you all know what that is, but that’s not put forward for us to know.”

The administration is relying on the framework developed with Congress in the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) and the GPRA Modernization Act, which was designed to address financial, human capital, IT and other programmatic and management challenges. But OMB’s broad definition for what constitutes a government program has led to lack of reporting and inaccuracies, Coburn said.

“Until we know what’s there and the people running the programs know what’s there, you’re never going to be able to manage that,” he said.

In her written testimony, Cobert said that the administration will soon release detailed implementation plans and specific metrics and milestones on cross agency goals. She noted this is the first year all agencies have revised their strategic plans at the same time.

OMB currently tracks and publishes metrics for improper payments across high-error programs like Medicaid and Pell Grants, as well as established targets for expanding broadband services and other ongoing efforts. Agencies also report metrics in their performance plans.

The ultimate goal is to improve effectiveness and efficiencies, while ensuring agencies have accurate data to determine specific results on the effects of their programs. Agencies should be able to answer questions such as “How efficiently were those results delivered? Are there lessons learned and successful innovations? What future opportunities, risks, or challenges may affect outcomes?” according to Cobert’s written testimony.

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How and when all agencies will get to that point is the concern.

“Why [does] only one agency in the federal government actually know all the programs they’re running?” Coburn said, referring to the Education Department. “We will never get there if we always have a reason why we can’t perform.”

He urged the Senate to take up the Taxpayers Right-to-know Act, which passed the House Feb. 25. The bill would require agencies to “identify and describe each program they administer, the cost to administer those programs, expenditures for services, the number of program beneficiaries, and the number of federal employees and contract staff involved,” according to the Congressional Budget Office. Agencies would be required to post the information on their websites.

When asked her thoughts on the bill, Cobert said there would need to be a clear understanding of how to get from the current state to what is required under the bill. Implementing the bill would cost about $100 million, according to CBO.

Government Accountability Office Comptroller Gene Dodaro testified that while agencies have made progress in key areas, there are still serious financial management issues at agencies like the Defense and Treasury departments. There are critical skills gaps across agencies and morale issues and issues like improper payments may only grow worse, considering half of improper payments occur in fast-growing programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Congress also bears some of the burden. Dodaro noted that Congress has yet to pass cybersecurity legislation to codify the Homeland Security Department’s role in cyberspace and establish a framework for information sharing.

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