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What the priority goals mean

Apr. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By JOHN KAMENSKY   |   Comments
John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He formerly served as a deputy for Vice President Gore's reinventing government initiative.
John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He formerly served as a deputy for Vice President Gore's reinventing government initiative. (File)

Last month, the White House publicly released a list of 92 priority goals that agencies have committed to achieve by the end of 2015. They also named individuals responsible for implementing these goals, as required by law. What are these goals? Who are these people?

The 2010 revision of the Government Performance and Results Act requires federal agencies to identify a limited number of two-year Agency Priority Goals. These action-oriented goals appear in their recently-released fiscal year 2015 budget proposals and are aligned with their newly released strategic goals and objectives.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, “Agency Priority Goals target areas where agency leaders want to achieve near-term performance acceleration through focused senior leadership attention.” The law also requires the Administration to adopt a limited number of Cross-Agency Priority Goals as well, that address policy initiatives as well as management improvement initiatives. Both sets of goals are available on the website.

The Obama Administration initially piloted the use of agency priority goals in 2009 shortly after taking office, and it has refreshed them every two years. It recently announced the completion of its 2012-2013 set of goals, identifying several significant achievements, such as Treasury’s efforts to modernize the federal government’s payment systems. This resulted in paper benefit payments dropping from 131 million in 2010 to 39 million in 2013. This got money to beneficiaries faster and reduced the potential for fraud and theft. It also resulted in savings of $100 million a year.

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A more complete assessment will be reported by the Government Accountability Office this summer.

What Have Agencies Committed to Do in the Next Two Years? When compared to the prior set of Agency Priority Goals from 2012-2013, the new set of goals is far more specific in terms of what agencies are committing to accomplish. About half of the 2014-2015 goals reflect similar priorities as the earlier goals, but are much specific. Following are several examples:

Department of Education: Ensure Equitable Educational Opportunities. By Sept. 30, 2015, the number of high schools with persistently low graduation rates will decrease by 5 percent annually. The national high school graduation rate will increase to 83 percent, as measured by the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, and disparities in the national high school graduation rate among minority students, students with disabilities, English learners, and students in poverty will decrease.

Goal Leader: Deb Delisle, Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, DoED

Department of Health and Human Services: Reduce combustible tobacco use. By December 31, 2015, reduce the annual adult combustible tobacco consumption in the United States from 1,342 cigarette equivalents per capita to 1,174 cigarette equivalents per capita, which will represent an approximate 12 percent decrease from the 2012 baseline.

Goal Leader: Howard K. Koh, M.D., M.P.H.; Assistant Secretary for Health, HHS

Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Housing and Urban Development: Reduce veteran, chronic, family, and youth homelessness. In partnership, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) aim to reduce the number of Veterans living on the streets, experiencing homelessness to zero (as measured by the 2016 Point-in-Time count).

Goal Leaders: Jennifer Ho, Senior Adviser on Housing and Services, Office of the Secretary, HUD; and Lisa M. Pape, Director, VA Homeless Programs, Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration

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Department of Labor: Secure safe and healthy workplaces, particularly in high-risk industries. By September 30, 2015, increase the number of abated workplace hazards associated with falls, through inspections at workplaces covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and reduce worker fatality rates in mining by five percent per year based on a rolling five-year average.

Goal Leaders: David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health; Joseph Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health

The website is not just a list of goals, metrics, targets, but includes a description of the strategies agencies have developed, and how they link to the broader strategic goals agencies have set for themselves.

By law, each agency priority goal must have a designated “goal leader” to ensure accountability for action. In most cases, these are political appointees, but the Office of Management and Budget recommends that deputy goal leaders be career senior executives to ensure continuity and “reach back” within the agency. OMB says that whoever is designated as a goal leader must be “authorized to coordinate across an agency or program to achieve progress on a goal.”

What Happens Next? Agency chief operating officers – typically the deputy secretary – are tasked with running quarterly, data-driven progress reviews with the goal leaders. Agencies are posting their action plans on, which include indicators and milestones. These will be updated quarterly, as result of the progress reviews – typically this is posted on about six weeks after the end of each quarter.

Is There Any Value in Doing This? GAO surveys of federal managers show that when agencies target specific priorities for action, there is more attention to the use of performance information in identifying problems and opportunities for action. A 2013 GAO report found that 82 percent of managers were aware of their own agency’s priority goals and that there tended to be more cross-program collaboration to getting results on goals that depended on joint action.

The upcoming GAO report on agency priority goals will hopefully show that agencies are making measurable progress and that government can make a difference in a short period of time when leadership attention is targeted to priorities, with an individual held accountable for progress.

In the meanwhile, look up your agency’s priority goals on See who the leads are for each initiative and see if what you are working on can help them better succeed!

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