Twenty-five years ago this month, then-Vice President Al Gore presented a plan to radically change the way the federal government operates. The National Performance Review contained hundreds of recommendations designed to “make government work better and cost less.”
This attempt to transform the federal government is not unlike the Trump administration’s “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century” plan which would restructure several departments and change how various programs function.
Undoubtedly many elements of this proposal will face opposition in Congress. However, Washington should put aside partisan politics and embrace reorganization where it enables the federal government to better leverage data, become more efficient and better serve the American people.
In undertaking this effort, the Trump administration should look to elements of previous transformations – like the National Performance Review – that were successful. The plan from 25 years ago contained recommendations that were grounded in an understanding of the problems that existed within government at the time, including programs and agencies that were identified in the Government Accountability Office’s High-Risk List.
For example, in 1995, the Department of Housing and Urban Development was labeled a “high-risk” agency by the GAO due to insufficient control of programs, including the $9 billion Project Based Rental Assistance program. In 1999, HUD solicited help managing the administration of the program and competitively bid contracts to public housing agencies, to serve as Performance Based Contract Administrators (PBCAs). As explained by HUD at the time, the goal was “to release HUD staff for those duties that only government can perform and to increase accountability for subsidy payments.”
Through the competitive PBCA selection process, a public housing agency was selected for each state to be responsible for the oversight and administration of certain aspects of the Project Based Rental Assistance program to better detect, respond to and resolve problems of improper payments and noncompliance.
By every measure, this reform and the introduction of PBCAs was incredibly successful. HUD has acknowledged as much, stating PBCAs are integral to the department’s efforts to be “more effective and efficient in the oversight and monitoring” of the PBRA program.
The PBCA initiative helped make HUD a leader at reducing improper payments – from an estimated $3.2 billion in fiscal year 2000 to $1.23 billion in fiscal year 2011, more than 60 percent. By 2007, the program had helped lift the agency out of the GAO’s high-risk category.
The competitive and comprehensive PBCA selection process is a prime example of how government should work. It demonstrates what can be accomplished when the best practices and flexibility often seen in the private sector are applied to the administration of HUD contracts.
Despite the overwhelming success of this program, HUD has sought to move away from competitive contracting and dramatically change the way the program is administered.
In 2012, the department proposed a preference-based system that favored certain entities and excluded successful incumbents from consideration. With an eye toward good government, the American taxpayer and the tenants of the housing units, a group of PBCAs, including Navigate Affordable Housing Partners, protested the change and have been fighting for a return to the competitive process. Along the way, through documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, it was revealed that career HUD officials had sought to politicize the process and disqualify certain bidders.
HUD’s most recent attempt to rebid the program was cancelled in March of this year amid a flurry of concern and opposition.
HUD now has the opportunity to get it right – by working with the very PBCAs that have made the project-based rental assistance program a success. As the department contemplates the next rebid, one way to ensure “agencies deliver the outcomes the public expects” and “taxpayer dollars go to effective programs that produce results efficiently” – measures outlined in the reform principles of the Trump administration’s reorganization plan – is to continue with approaches that have proven to be successful. A comprehensive, competitive contracting process for selecting PBCAs is a first step along that path.
Any time government changes the way it operates – whether overhauling a contracting process or reorganizing an entire agency – policymakers must ensure that the effort meets one key objective: better serving the needs of the American taxpayer.
Lisa M. McCarroll is the CEO of Navigate Affordable Housing Partners, an ISO 9001 certified non-profit, providing PBCA to HUD in Alabama, Virginia, Mississippi and Connecticut.