OMB Guidance: Prepare to SOAR

OMB has released its long-awaited guidance for the implementation of new provisions in the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010. It describes a novel way to meet a statutory requirement to annually judge the performance of government programs. Agencies will have to put this new approach in place over the next two years.

A provision buried in the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 says: “Each fiscal year, the Office of Management and Budget shall determine whether the agency programs or activities meet performance goals and objectives outlined in the agency performance plans and submit a report on unmet goals . . ” to the agency head, GAO, and various congressional committees (section 1116(f)).

Doing this at the program or activity level, however, would be daunting. There are more than 1,000 programs government-wide (at least that was the case under the Bush Administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool). . . . In fact, the new law also mandates the creation of a definitive list of government programs (which will be a topic of a future blog post).

The new law also requires OMB to draft guidance explaining how this (and other provisions) in the law are to be implemented. In response, OMB developed a novel way to meet this statutory requirement that both reduces potential administrative burden but also increases the meaningfulness of the results of such a review by putting programs in the context of how they interact with each other around the achievement of meaningful outcomes.

OMB has developed a review process that focuses on assessments of agency strategic objectives – calling it the “Strategic Objectives Annual Review” (SOAR for short!). This review will be used to inform long-term strategy planning as well as annual budgeting, identify gaps in capacity, and improve transparency. The guidance lays out a structured process for raising issues to agency leadership, and how progress under each strategic objective will be assessed.

Fiscal years 2012-2013 will be a transition phase, “because many agencies do not have strategic objectives set which are appropriate for such a review, or do not have appropriate data sources for each strategic objective.” OMB encourages agencies to develop a strategic objective review process and, using existing information in their current performance plans, include progress summaries in their FY 2012 annual performance reports.

Beginning in fiscal year 2014, all agencies will be required to begin assessing progress on their strategic objectives (which will have been updated as a part of their new strategic plans, due in February 2014).

But this isn’t just a new paperwork exercise. The new law requires OMB to assess whether agencies are making progress toward their planned levels of performance and take action if it judges that a strategic objective is “facing significant challenges.” This tracking and reporting framework will begin “with the assessment completed for fiscal year 2014 Annual Performance Report.”

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David Dejewski

I’m always more curious about the way the government plans to validate that accurate and complete information was submitted. Without this validation, it sounds like a new pile of paper to me.

Each of these reports has a team of people assigned who’s job it is to “simplify” the data going forward. That usually means justifying the massive amount of information that isn’t being reported.

As long as inspections are filtered through a single “authoritative” POC (I knew one who once bragged that she was the “Chief Weasel Worder”), I’m afraid transparency will remain elusive.

Hate to be a downer, John, but I’ve seen way too many of these.

John Kamensky

David – There is always the risk that leaders will get sugar-coated assessments, but if the actual underlying data are available, and it is made public (or even if only available to the entire agency staff via the intranet), then truth tellers tend to come out. Your observations were borne out in the OMB PART reviews, where summary data were massaged over time to improve the scores, so your fears are well-founded.