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Congress Overhauls Results Act, Wants Results

This article ran in the March/April
2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Email Editor Christine McCrehin at
[email protected] for information on how to subscribe to the paper.

John M. Kamensky

My October 2010 column chronicled how Congress was updating the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act because the law had not resulted in “significant gains in the use of performance information for decision making,” according to the Government Accountability Office. Well, Congress passed a set of fairly significant amendments requiring more than 150 changes in practice and President Obama signed the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 in early January.

The bill changed dramatically as it went through Congress. When it was originally introduced in the House, it largely focused on increased reporting of program performance and creating a network of performance officers across the government. When it was finally signed by the President, the bill focused heavily on using performance information to get results–both within agencies and across agencies (see sidebar for highlights). In fact, one of the co-sponsors, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) remarked: “This is the biggest little bill nobody ever heard of…if we implement this the right way…” it could be one of the most significant pieces of legislation from the 111th Congress.

As of the end of March, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had not yet issued any guidance to agencies on implementing the new law. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t thinking about it! I’ve been to over a half-dozen forums in recent weeks where the provisions of the new law have been parsed and pondered. Following are some of the key challenges that have been raised, and some potential directions OMB and agencies may choose to take:

How will cross-agency priority goals be developed? The new law requires for the first time that OMB develop a small handful of long-term cross-agency priority goals, in consultation with at least a dozen named congressional committees, at least every two years. There is no precedent for this. It will require creating new institutional procedures in both OMB and Congress. How this will evolve will be of interest to a wide range of observers! Similarly, agencies will need to consult with Congress as well as OMB on their priority goals as well.

In testimony before Senator Warner’s taskforce on government performance in mid-March, the president of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta, said: “The new law also asks for cross-government goals, which I believe is its most important feature. President Obama should use this opportunity to communicate what his entire administration is trying to accomplish, setting no more than five goals that are presented as a contract between himself and the American people…Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair did something similar to great effect.”

How will agencies align their plans, goals, and resources? The new law requires agencies to revisit their existing strategic plans and annual performance plans and align them with each other, with their priority goals, and more importantly–with the resources and strategies to carry them out.

Again, Podesta commented: “The current administration wisely asked agencies to narrow their number of goals. But there are still too many so-called ‘High Priority Performance Goals’–128 to be exact–and many are decipherable only to people inside government. Fewer, more resonant goals would raise their profile and better communicate government priorities to the public.”

He went on to note: “These goals should state in clear, quantifiable terms what the agency will achieve for the American people and how much money it will save by cutting waste in procurement, information technology, and other operations.”

Agencies have until February 2012 to make these revisions, but they also must align their plans and resources with the OMB-developed cross-agency priority goals. Will agencies first wait for OMB to lay out those goals, or wait for further guidance from OMB before beginning their revision efforts? Or will they move forward on their own? From my conversations with agency officials, some agencies are not waiting!

How will OMB and agencies conduct required quarterly reviews? The new law requires agencies to conduct quarterly reviews of their progress toward priority goals. One approach being closely examined for how to do this is the “performance-stat” reviews held in a growing number of state and local governments (I’ve described this approach in previous PA?TIMES columns).

Podesta’s Center for American Progress issued a recent report, “Performance Reviews that Work,” that examined the pioneering efforts at NASA, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Federal Aviation Administration. It examined specific details, such as how frequent the performance reviews should be and who should attend, and what kinds of metrics should be tracked. The key insight, though, was the tone of the meetings should be “inquisitive” not “accusative.” Follow up from the previous sessions and continuous feedback were also seen as important characteristics.

How will OMB and agencies approach data collection and reporting? The new law requires agencies to re-think how they collect and report their performance information. Agencies will have to collect and report far more frequently than the annual requirements of the 1993 Results Act. A key question many are asking: will agencies develop their own approaches or will OMB use an approach similar to that developed under the 2009 Recovery Act, where OMB was required to create a central clearinghouse for the collection and reporting of stimulus spending?

How OMB chooses to implement this could affect how states and localities (as well as non-profits and government contractors) collect and report data. Many agencies are waiting for OMB guidance on this, but in the case of the Department of Energy, it is already exploring how the Recovery Act data collection and reporting approach could potentially be adapted to the Department’s existing data collection and reporting systems.

Coming months will be busy at OMB and in various agencies. Will it result in the new approaches to performance, or a new layer of complexity in agency compliance? Stay tuned!

ASPA?member John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He is also a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Email: [email protected]


Highlights of the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010

New–Priority Goals. OMB will identify a small number of cross-agency priority goals and agencies will identify a small number of priority goals for themselves. In total, these should number around 100. Governmentwide priority goals would cover both management goals, such as improving financial management, as well as cross-agency policy priorities, such as climate change. Agency heads would also identify priority goals within their own agencies. All goals would have a designated “goal manager.”

New–Quarterly Reviews and Reports. OMB and agencies will review progress on their priority goals at least quarterly and report on their status. They are also to assess whether the goals are on track to meet their targets and identify strategies to improve performance if they are not.

New–Tiered Consequences. If agency goals miss their targets by the end of the year, as determined by OMB, agencies are required to develop a remedial plan and designate someone to oversee the improvements. If targets are missed a second year, agencies must report to Congress and say what they will do, including reallocating monies. And if targets are missed a third year, then Congress would consider revising legislation or eliminating the program.

New–Codification of Governance Framework. A series of officials and councils evolved over the past 18 years to support agency performance. These were codified into law, including: chief operating officers, performance improvement officers, a governmentwide performance improvement council, and a governmentwide performance website that will provide information on cross-agency and agency-specific goals, plans, programs, and performance reports.

Revised–Agency Planning and Reporting Requirements. Agencies will time their strategic plans to the presidential election cycle every 4 years and align their goals with broad federal efforts and other agencies. Agencies also must link their annual performance plans to their goals in their strategic plans as well as with the resources and strategies they will use to accomplish those goals, and these annual plans must cover a two-year period. Finally, the annual reporting cycle is now “at least” annual and agencies are encouraged to provide more frequent updates.

Source: GPRA Modernization Act of 2010, Public Law 111-352, January 4, 2011.

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