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The Ever-Expanding Obama Performance Agenda

This article ran in the August/September 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on the print issue. See the Related Articles box for links to more articles from the Insights on Performance column.

John M. Kamensky

The Obama Administration started in 2009 with a fairly direct “lead, learn, and leverage” initiative on improving government performance by focusing on a set of priority goals in each agency. But times have changed and so has its government performance agenda! The new emphasis is on cutting costs without cutting performance.

The latest iteration of the Administration’s performance agenda is reflected in a recently-launched website sponsored by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Performance.gov. It showcases eight different sets of initiatives underway. The common theme among the various initiatives is they reflect different strategies to cut costs while improving performance.

Administration Management Initiatives
Here’s a quick snapshot of the variety of initiatives launched in the past year or so that are underway:

Acquisition. The administration has committed to improving the way the government buys both goods and services by cutting the growth in its use of contracting for services and relying more on government employees to do work seen as governmental in nature. It is also attempting to decrease the risk of out-of-control contracting costs by encouraging the use of fixed-price contracts and increased competition. It is also expanding the use of common purchases in an effort to leverage the buying power of the government, instead of each agency making its own purchases of common items such as computer paper. The overall goal is savings of about $40 billion a year.

Customer service. In April, the president directed “each agency to develop a customer service plan that identifies implementation steps for their customer service activities, including a ‘signature initiative’ that leverages technology to improve the customer experience.” Recent OMB guidance has directed agencies to put more services on line, cut in half the number of federal websites (estimated at 24,000) in order to both reduce costs but also increase customer experience, and adopt customer service best practices from private industry in areas such as call center management.

Financial management. The traditional push for increasing the reliability of financial information has been overtaken by new pressures to reduce improper payments, with a goal of savings of $50 billion by the end of 2012. This is being paired with a parallel initiative to more aggressively collect monies already owed the government, largely in unpaid taxes. In addition, there is a major initiative to rid the government of under-used properties after a recent inventory identified 14,000 excess buildings that could be sold, resulting in $15 billion in savings over the next three years.

Human resources. The effort to cut the size and cost of the federal workforce is clashing with the retirement wave of the Baby Boomers. But the expectation remains to recruit the best employees to government service by streamlining the hiring process and offering them challenging work. A regular survey of employees is resulting in a series of ongoing efforts to engage the new generation in different ways, such as by providing telework options.

Open government. A signature Obama initiative, Open Government efforts by individual agencies have been embedded into their operations. The most visible seems to be efforts to promote transparency of government spending via websites such as usaspending.gov and recovery.gov. The main transparency website, data.gov, now has nearly 400,000 data sets that users can download and use, such as hospital-level “outcomes of care” data.

Performance improvement. The Administration’s early efforts to improve performance by using goals to improve performance and accountability were overtaken by the passage of the GPRA Modernization Act. This new law requires agencies to develop priority goals by February 2012. OMB is working with agencies to do this with no new spending. The new law also requires agencies to use frequent, data-driven reviews to improve their performance and many already have begun to do this. Recent OMB guidance provides the details and timetables for agencies to act upon.

Sustainability. Another Administration initiative is to reduce the impact of the federal government on the environment, and in the process reduce its costs substantially. A presidential executive order directs federal agencies to “reduce greenhouse gas pollution, eliminate waste, improve energy and water performance, and leverage Federal purchasing power to support innovation and entrepreneurship in clean energy technologies and environmentally-responsible products.” In aggregate, agencies must cut their greenhouse gas (and associated energy costs) by 28 percent by 2020. Each agency has a plan in place with specific targets to reduce greenhouse gases, their use of energy, their use of petroleum in their car fleets, and their use of water, as well as targets to expand their use of green buildings.

Technology. OMB released a 25-point plan in December to improve the federal government’s use of technology. The plan emphasizes the effective management of large-scale IT projects via a series of data-driven review meetings, a public dashboard on progress, and stronger powers for agency chief information officers to redirect or kill projects. The plan also encourages agencies to cut the number of data centers almost in half and to increase the use of “cloud” technology. When these initiatives are taken together, some estimate there could be savings of up to $20 billion.

More Initiatives Underway and to Come
Interestingly, though, even the one-stop Performance.gov website doesn’t capture the full range of initiatives underway. Not mentioned on the site are several other important performance-related initiatives, such as the January presidential directive to review and streamline agency regulations and the February presidential memo directing agencies to work with states and localities “to identify the best opportunities to realize efficiency, promote program integrity, and improve program outcomes.” In these cases, agency plans are due shortly to OMB.

Other performance-related initiatives are also in the works. For example, the initiative to reorganize the government, starting with the export and trade functions promised in the president’s State of the Union address, has not yet been announced. OMB budget guidance to agencies in August directs them to address the Government Accountability Office’s recent report identifying duplicative and overlapping programs. The guidance also directs them to submit two budget scenerios–one with a 5 percent cut and another with a 10 percent cut.

Finally, an Administration-led task force is sketching out details to expand the seemingly successful spending and reporting requirements in the Recovery Act to all federal spending. But in this season, nothing really seems to be final… I’m sure there’s more to come!

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]

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