Highlights of Senate GPRA Oversight Hearing

Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) chaired a joint hearing on the implementation of the GPRA Modernization Act and he seemed to enjoy himself. In fact, after the hearing he lingered a long time talking with hearing participants, almost being the last to leave the room!

What sparked his imagination? Here’s a link to the hearing record.

Lead off witnesses included Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients and Comptroller General Gene Dodaro (who Carper jokingly referred to as Zients’ “wingman”). Here are some testimony highlights from Zients:

Executive Branch Implementation Steps To Date.

On April 14th, Director Lew and I sent a memo to agency heads which lays out the initial steps for implementing the Act. . . . By the end of June, we will launch an online resource center to promote the sharing of best-practices related to goal-setting. . . . We anticipate making an early version of Performance.gov available to the public in the near future. We plan to expand and improve the public site to meet the law’s expectations before the October 2012 timeframe, although the exact timing and level of sophistication for those improvements will depend upon future funding levels.

Cross-Agency Priority Goal Setting.

As this Administration, Congress, GAO and others have long recognized, government sometimes tackles problems in stove-piped or fragmented ways that prevent these problems from being solved. The GPRA Modernization Act establishes a mechanism to enhance progress in areas that need cross-government coordination by requiring OMB to establish Federal Cross-Agency Priority Goals, with the first set of interim Federal Cross-Agency Priority Goals to be included in the FY2013 Budget. OMB has begun the process of identifying goals that will benefit from cross-agency coordination. As part of that, we are looking at existing Administration efforts, as well as areas identified in the recent GAO report on “Opportunities to Reduce Potential duplication in Government Programs and Save Tax Dollars.” As GAO indicated in its report, Federal agencies have significant efforts underway to address these areas, and we will use the Federal Cross-Agency Priority Goals as an additional tool to make significant progress in eliminating duplication and improving coordination. We look forward to working with Congress in the coming months as we develop the first Federal Cross-Agency Priority Goals to release with the President’s FY2013 budget as called for by the Act.

The second panel, comprised of the IBM Center’s Jonathan Breul, former OMB executive Robert Shea, and former GAO executive Paul Posner, focused on different aspects of the implementation of the new law. Here are some highlights from Posner’s testimony:

Potential Congressional Implementation Steps.

As we move to the next stages ushered in by the Modernization Act, congressional involvement will be even more important to realize the goals of the act and the promise of performance management. The Modernization Act, indeed, emphasizes consultation with the Congress in developing both government wide and agency high priority goals.

Congressional involvement is particularly critical to the success of the new crosscutting performance reviews. Congress is often the fountain from which springs forth the fragmented array of programs and tools that confound policymakers and publics alike. Is there hope that a crosscutting framework could be employed in a body with such widespread dispersal of power across committees? . . . .

When thinking about models for congressional involvement with the new crosscutting portfolio reviews, three broad pathways come to mind: collaboration, congressional oversight and congressional budgeting.

Collaboration. OMB could invite key congressional leaders from relevant committees to meet and reach agreement about those areas to be assessed in each budget year. Congress could help ensure that areas that are ripe for reexamination, such as those up for reauthorization, would get attention in the executive review process. The resulting assessment process could have greater credibility in the process. Such a process would require changes from both institutions. Congress would have to be willing to articulate its oversight and reexamination priorities more centrally. OMB would have to be willing to open up its own process to become more collaborative with the Congress in development of performance assessment – a prospect that has been resisted in the past.

Oversight. House and Senate government oversight committees have formal authority to coordinate oversight plans of congressional committees. While such authority has not been exercised with noticeable impact to date, the new crosscutting reviews may help stimulate such an initiative.

Budget Process. While often led from the leadership offices themselves, the budget committees were established precisely to lead and coordinate crosscutting assessments of budgetary choices. The Budget Committee not only has a government-wide perspective, but also uses budget functions as building blocks for the budget resolution. Functions and subfunctions serve as proxies for broad missions or goals that can be the foundation for systematic performance assessments of the myriad of programs and tools addressing each mission. Moreover, the annual budget focus gives these Committees a routine responsibility that can be coupled to the performance assessment process. . . . .

Potential Actions. Decision-making around the new federal priority goals could be the launching pad for a new effort to improve budgeting. . . . . The development of plans on a portfolio basis would highlight the potential gains from adopting this new focus. Should this prove to be compelling to high-level policymakers, planning and budgeting in both the executive and Congress may never be the same.

I don’t need to tell you how difficult this will be to accomplish in our system. One of the reasons we have such fragmentation of programs addressing common goals is due to the presence of multiple overlapping committees in the Congress and agencies in the Executive Branch. Several strategies will help overcome some of the obvious barriers and achieve the greatest potential impact:

• Collaboration between OMB and key congressional committee leaders in selecting areas to focus on for crosscutting performance reviews

• Selective focus on a vital few areas to be undertaken each year. PART taught us that attempting to cover the entire budget can ultimately exhaust both the suppliers of information and the potential audience

• Integration across policy tools which will add significant value to current budget and performance presentations. Tax expenditures, for instance, are of equal magnitude as total federal discretionary spending, yet they are largely not considered in the executive or congressional budget processes and they remain largely immune from performance assessments

• Building from existing budget subfunctions which already use OMB budget data in focusing on broader mission areas supported across agencies in the budget. . . .

Other nations have used portfolio approaches to budgeting that we can learn from. For instance, Australia has launched a series of strategic reviews of a select number of cross agency missions, to include both spending and tax expenditures.

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The most encouraging point about the hearing was that it was held! Congressional interest in performance (the important) is often driven out by the focus on budget (the urgent). Senator Carper’s engagement may stem from his prior experience as a governor. He understands that setting priorities and following through is a key to success.

That Congress has held two hearings on the new law ( here’s a link to the first one), even before agencies have begun implementation, demonstrates a willingness and interest in begin engaged.

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