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Obama’s Performance Revolution: Changing How Government Works

This article appeared in the Mar/Apr print issue of PA TIMES.

John M. Kamensky

“The Administration is committed to revolutionizing how the federal government works on behalf of the American people,” states President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget. But this comes as a surprise to many inside-the-Beltway grumblers who are disappointed that Obama has not announced some “big bang” government reform initiative so far. There’s been no splash like Bill Clinton’s National Performance Review or George W. Bush’s President’s Management Agenda.

So where’s the revolution? University of Maryland’s Professor Don Kettl notes that a series of Obama initiatives, when taken cumulatively, are significantly reshaping how government works. He calls it a “stealth revolution” that is quietly reshaping both governance and performance in the federal system.

What’s Promised in the FY 2011 Budget? The performance agenda in the FY 2011 budget comes across as modest–and achievable. It focuses on three initiatives:

High Performance Goals. The new chief performance officer, Jeffrey Zients, worked with the major agencies to identify a sub-set of goals that they felt they could achieve in the following 18 to 24 months. Consequently, the budget details 128 specific, measurable goals that Zients, and the Office of Management and Budget, will track via a “performance portal” and quarterly meetings. Goals include reducing the number of homeless veterans to 59,000 by 2012 and increasing the number of on-line filers for Social Security to 50 percent.

Public Dashboards. The budget commits to an expanded use of other portals, as well. It describes how it has already created an IT Spending dashboard, which regularly posts the progress of major agency information technology projects on-line. It proposes creating dashboards for other projects as well, including improper payments, citizen services, hiring, procurement, etc.

Problem Solving Networks. The budget also commits to building on existing, or creating new, cross-agency teams to tackle shared problems. Some will be mission-related (such as reducing obesity), some will be process- based (such as improving transaction processing or customer service), and some will focus on policy “tools” (such as block grants or conducting evaluations). The governmentwide Performance Improvement Council will be the hub for any performance management networks.

However, the real effects of Obama’s approach to performance are woven into his Administration in different ways and are reflected in several policy statements, such as his Transparent and Open Government memo, which advocates greater transparency, participation, and collaboration. The most direct statement, for the performance community, is in the FY 2011 budget: “Government operates more effectively when it focuses on outcomes, when leaders set clear and measurable goals, and when agencies use measurement to reinforce priorities, motivate action, and illuminate a path to improvement.”

While policy statements help frame a way forward, what is actually being done? Following are three of the more significant steps being taken so far:

  • Challenging the traditional governance approaches by creating new roles and responsibilities reaching across agency boundaries.
  • Advocating the use of radical transparency of government data as a new form of accountability, and
  • Using Web 2.0 social media to increase citizen and employee participation and collaboration.

Challenging the Traditional Governance Approaches. Professor Kettl’s 2009 book, The Next Government of the United States, is premised on his observation that “the government we had was not a good match for the problems we were trying to solve.” He says we need to organize government around collaborative, results-based behavior, but that the old-style accountability system “drives out the quest for results.” The Obama Administration seems to have taken this to heart and is trying to change the governance system, at least in the executive branch.

The first step was to redefine roles of some key officials. Obama’s presidential campaign committed to creating three new positions: a chief performance officer, a chief technology officer, and a chief information officer. He also appointed a series of high-level coordinators for key initiatives–health care reform, the financial crisis, implementation of the Recovery Act, improving food safety, and more. In fact, he has been criticized for appointing too many “czars.” But by doing so, he was trying to address the inability to get things done in the traditional agency-and-program approach to governance. Kettl says “this is a revolutionary in-scale move to maneuver past the permanent bureaucracy.”

However, these may only be the first steps in redefining governance. The Obama budget also praises the use of CompStat meetings in state and local governments. These are frequently scheduled, goal-focused, data-driven meetings that use statistics to solve problems.

But how do you ensure accountability under this new approach? This is linked to a second major set of initiatives, Obama’s “transparency and open government” efforts.

Advocating Radical Transparency in Data. President Obama’s commitment to “radical transparency” goes far beyond approving more Freedom of Information Act requests. It involves sharing massive amounts of raw, machine-readable data on-line. For example, agencies have been asked to post “high value data sets” on the internet on the Data.Gov website. So far, people are downloading, re-using, and interpreting more than 170,000 available data sets.

The Recovery Act is another example of radical transparency of both spending and performance data. Recipients of Recovery Act funds–over $300 billion–are required to submit quarterly reports on spending, progress, and results. Over 160,000 entities–states, localities, non-profits, and for-profits–are reporting via this new system. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these new reporting requirements are creating a demand among citizens for similar reporting of other funds, and organizations are beginning to use the Recovery Act data collection requirements to monitor their own performance progress.

Using Social Media to Promote Participation and Collaboration. The new Chief Technology and Chief Information Officers are actively promoting the use of technology as a way of increasing citizen and employee participation in getting insights and results.

Citizens are being invited to comment on government proposals, such as new regulations, at an earlier stage in the process. They are also being invited to offer ideas for improving agency operations, as well. For example, citizens were invited to provide insights for the Department of Homeland Security’s quadrennial review and to interact with people from other countries in framing priorities for U.S. foreign aid.

Inside the government, the Administration is expanding pilot programs that offer incentives and prizes for innovation. For example, last year OMB hosted a contest to find ways to save money. Over 38,000 ideas were submitted and the winner had the honor of presenting her idea directly to the President. In addition, the budget commits to creating a governmentwide on-line “platform” to allow employees to collaborate more readily across agency boundaries.

What Are the Implications for the Performance Movement? Obama’s evolving “performance revolution” has a series of potential implications for those interested in performance management. When taken together, these various initiatives could significantly change the performance measurement and reporting world.

First, the shift from a traditional performance model organized around agencies and programs–to one premised on a series of services and results–will likely result in different executive and legislative branch roles and relationships. In addition to “czars” around cross-cutting outcomes, this could include institutional changes, such as a congressional “performance resolution” setting goals for cross-cutting outcomes, such as climate change, rather than the traditional approach where dozens of congressional committees independently set their own sub-goals for executive agencies to act upon.

Second, changes in institutional structures will likely lead to changes in accountability structures. Again, this could occur in both the executive and legislative branches. For example, agencies may move away from standardized, static performance measures being reported annually–such as the current Performance and Accountability Reports– to near-real-time, unanalyzed performance information being available to both government employees and the public. This will unsettle both politicians as well as senior career leaders!

Finally, this has the potential to change the role of citizens, where they have the opportunity to become far more involved in defining accountability, developing solutions, and analyzing data via ever-evolving social media tools. Government analysts won’t be able to control the data and analysis, and they will have competition in creating meaningful and actionable knowledge from the data. Again, an unsettling prospect in many agencies.

So these are exciting times in the performance world and, to paraphrase a saying from the 1960s, the Obama Performance Revolution will not be televised, but you can catch it online!

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

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