Using Consultations to Make Informed Decisions

A perennial lament by advocates of the use of performance measures is that Congress seems to rarely use them in making decisions. Here’s a guide prepared by GAO, along with three examples of how congressional committees have used performance information to make decisions.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) works for Congress and is a big proponent of performance-informed decision making. So they’ve written a very practical report on how Congress can effectively use performance information produced by federal agencies to make better decisions. And they’ve illustrated the report with three examples of where congressional committees, over a period of years, used performance information to guide key decisions in diverse areas such as immigration, HIV/AIDs, and improper payments.

Part of GAO’s overall findings were that when agencies approached Congress in a consultative fashion when setting goals and developing strategies, and when they engaged Congress in developing measures of performance and reporting results, there was a higher degree of congressional engagement in using performance information. GAO developed a really useful set of questions (basically the last page of the report — appendix I, table 2, pg. 27) that agencies should use to guide their consultative interactions.

GAO’s suggested consultation questions are organized around four topics: long-term and annual goal setting; strategies and resources needed; measuring performance; reporting results.

The Use of Consultations. The new GPRA Modernization Act “requires OMB and agencies to consult with relevant committees, obtaining majority and minority views, about proposed goals at least once every 2 years.” GAO notes that “creating shared expectations and engaging the right people at the right time can help ensure consultations are successful.” GAO’s previous work revealed that congressional staff “wanted a deeper examination of the agency’s strategic plan and overall performance,” and not just a pro forma meeting. It’s advice:

  • Create shared expectations. Tailor consultations and information provided to meet the needs of congressional staff (e.g., advanced drafts of plans before coming to a meeting) so that a joint meeting results in a mutual understanding of priorities.
  • Engage the right people at the right time. The consultation process should be seen as iterative, not a one-time event. Consultations, GAO notes, should start at the staff level and then involve principals (members of Congress and agency heads) at strategic points. Ideally, the consultations would be bipartisan and joint with relevant authorizing, appropriations, budget, and oversight staffs, but in practice this has been rare.

Case Studies. Three examples where Congress engaged in meaningful consultations and used performance information provided by agencies include:

  • The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (C(S) was hindered by inefficient, paper-based citizenship application process, resulting in a backlog if 3.8 million cases in 2004. CIS worked with Congress, providing performance and planning information over a period of years that led in 2007 to an upgrade in its technology systems. The dialog continues as implementation of the new system is underway.
  • The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Congress created a 5-year, $15 billion strategy to fight global HIV/AIDS in 2003. It set a number of performance targets in legislation, such as supporting treatment for 2 million people by 2006. Annual progress reports by the State Department and ongoing consultations contributed to an extension and expansion of the program through 2013.
  • Reducing Improper Payments. Congressional oversight over the years gave OMB and other agencies the authority to better address the problems associated with improper payments. Congressional action in 2002 and continual oversight and consultation led to changes in strategy. This was reflected in new statutory authority in 2010. The issue was also highlighted as a presidential cross-agency priority goal in 2012.

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