Robert Shea is a principal with Grant Thornton LLP's Global Public Sector and the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Academy of Public Administration. He is a former senior official at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

I just completed two full days with about 300 of my dearest friends in the performance management community discussing where we are and how to accelerate progress measuring and improving program performance. Thanks to the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) and the Performance Institute for organizing such a great event!

One panel I was proud to moderate included Gary VanLandingham and Torey Silloway, both of the Pew MacArthur Results First Initiative. They discussed at some length their recent report, Evidence-Based Policy Making: A Guide for Effective Government, which offers a helpful "how to" for governments wanting to enhance their performance management practices.

One of the ways AGA and the Performance Institute sought to engage their audience more directly this year was through polling. So we got to ask our viewers some probing questions.

Include Auditors in Program Assessments

First, we asked who they were. Among the audience, about 60 percent were auditors or financial managers and 30 percent were performance/program managers or evaluators. Perhaps that's why it's not surprising that more than 75 percent said auditors should play a role in assessing the effectiveness of government programs rather than limiting their responsibilities to financial stewardship. Clearly, those in financial management have an important role to play in measuring and improving performance. It may be time to clarify what that right role is, though.

Because the Results First report puts a significant emphasis on inventorying evidence of program effectiveness as an important step in building an evidence-based policy making framework, we asked the audience whether their organizations had "a robust body of evidence about whether programs are working." Almost 80 percent said they did not. While we've made real progress, we still have a long way to go if we are going to build a repository of program evaluations that government managers can rely on to enhance decision-making.

Obviously ready for the question, VanLandingham and Silloway pointed to a great public service that the Pew MacArthur Results First Initiative is offering to federal, state and local governments. They've compiled a database of evaluated interventions culled from eight national research clearinghouses. "Awareness is growing that governments can significantly improve policy outcomes by strategically targeting funds to programs that are shown through rigorous research to be highly effective," the website asserts. So "the [Results First] project has created the Results First Clearinghouse Database . . . [a] one-stop online resource [that] provides policymakers with an easy way to find information on the effectiveness of various interventions as rated by eight national research clearinghouses." It should be a first-stop for program managers who want to find what works.

What Do Outcomes Cost?

But rigorous evidence of effectiveness will only take you so far. To truly assess or compare the relative cost effectiveness of different programs, it is helpful to know what programs cost or, more importantly, what outcomes cost. More than 80 percent of respondents say they don't have adequate cost information to judge the cost effectiveness of programs. Despite decades of law, guidance and instruction, governments still don't have a good handle on the costs of delivering important outcomes.

I was pleasantly surprised by the answer to the question about performance budgeting. When asked whether they used performance information to justify budget requests, more than 40 percent -- almost half – said they did. It's not perfect, but it's a substantial improvement on the degree to which we have adequate evaluation or cost information.

Whether policy makers use the information or not is a bigger question, but at least we're beginning to see more and more integration of performance with funding requests. Gathering cost information and building evaluation results are works in progress, too. But the Pew MacArthur Results First Initiative has provided an incredibly helpful roadmap for governments to use to get there.

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