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Where Is Waldo?

George Washington University professor Kathy Newcomer likened the Obama Administration’s performance agenda to a game of “Where is Waldo?” at a Brookings Institution forum last week on improving government performance. She says “you have to look carefully” to find it. She said there was no orchestrated campaign with a band leading the way.

Newcomer’s insight at the Brookings Institution forum on improving government performance was reinforced by OMB deputy director Jeff Zients’ keynote address – where he discussed his new responsibility to lead the effort to reorganize government functions. He did not address the performance agenda.

So Where Is Waldo?

It seems that the Obama Administration’s performance agenda is playing out in a number of arenas. Zients says his goal is to get away from a focus on compliance and reporting burdens and focus agency attention on the use of data to make management decisions. This does seem to be happening, but not necessarily in an orchestrated way. Maybe the metaphor is more of a tapestry than a Waldo game.

There have been almost a dozen different contributions to the overall performance agenda during the first two years of the Obama administration — some by its own making, but others stem from Congress. Taken together, though, they weave an interesting tapestry of performance improvement initiatives:

Obama Performance Initiatives

Commitment to an Agenda Focused on “Lead, Learn, Leverage.” OMB committed to a three-part agenda to use performance information to (1) lead by setting a 128 high priority performance goals, (2) learn by using constructive data-informed discussions to keep their organizations on track, and (3) leverage resources through the use of problem-solving networks to work together to improve performance.

Implementation of Recovery Act Tracking System. The Recovery Act’s accountability requirements led to the creation of a governmentwide data collection and reporting system that reported both financial and performance information at a granular level (e.g., neighborhoods!) on a quarterly basis. This piloted a new capacity for creating and reporting data.

Creation of Performance.Gov. The progress towards the 128 high priority performance goals developed by agencies is reported via a single governmentwide web portal. It is currently not open to the public but is being used by agencies. The new Results Act amendments (see “Congress Performance Initiatives,” below) requires such a portal to be expanded to become the one-stop center for all government performance plans and reports.

Commitment to Reorganize the Government. President Obama, in his 2011 State of the Union address, said “we cannot win the future with a government of the past.” This led to a memo directing the delivery of a plan of action to reorganize agencies and functions associated with improving the performance of trade, exports, and competitiveness.

Cuts Based on “Line-by-Line” Reviews. President Obama selected programs for cuts or elimination in each the past three fiscal years based on their relatively poor levels of performance, based on what he called “line-by-line” reviews.

Support for Program Evaluation. While President Obama has proposed cutting poor performing programs, he has supported investment in program evaluations in agencies to identify what works and doesn’t work, and why. He proposed an investment of $100 million in such efforts in his last two budgets.

Expansion of Administrative Flexibility. A February 2011 presidential memo declared “the array of rules and requirements imposed by various Federal programs and agencies may at times undermine their efforts to modernize and integrate program delivery.” It directed agencies to work with states and localities to identify and streamline rules that impede improved performance.

Congressional Performance Initiatives.

Creation of Recovery Act Accountability System. The accountability system created for the $250 billion in grants and contracts embedded in the Recovery Act was funded with about $84 million to track the dollars associated with the grants and contracts provided under the act, and to collect some rudimentary performance information (mainly jobs created and the extent of progress of funded projects). This first-time governmentwide accountability system could have lessons for future performance efforts.

Authorization of Key National Indicators System. Congress included a provision in the healthcare reform act to authorize the creation of a third-party, neutral system to track the overall progress of the nation in economic, environmental, and social arenas. These trends could potentially inform priorities for improved performance for the country as a whole.

Senate Budget Committee Task Force on Government Performance. The Senate created its first official group with a focus on improving government performance. This task force was a key player in developing legislation modernizing the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). It has also been holding oversight hearings.

Passage of GPRA Modernization Act. Congress adopted amendments to the 1993 Results Act (GPRA) that reinforce the Obama administration’s efforts to set priority goals, with quarterly progress assessments based on performance data, and report via a governmentwide website. It also creates a governance framework by institutionalizing the use of agency performance improvement officers and includes opportunities for greater congressional involvement in goal-setting and performance reviews.

Focus on Program Overlaps and Duplication. The statutory provision requiring the Government Accountability Office to report annually on programs that overlap and duplicate effort begins to underline an emphasis on what results these programs are trying to achieve. This focus, by the way, is a radically different approach than Congress took to cut costs in the 1980s via across-the-board methods. Its current cutting efforts seem to focus greater weight on prioritizing cuts on the basis of their levels of performance.

The Leadership Challenge

The opportunities created by this tapestry are potentially exciting. The challenge will be to create some form of convergence among the various threads. The Administration has a broader management agenda, detailed in the President’s Accountable Government Initiative. The performance element is one of six initiatives described there. To date, some of the other initiatives – such as improving the management of technology, reducing improper payments, and streamlining the federal hiring process – have gotten more attention. However, this does not mean the performance element is not underway.

Maybe Dr. Newcomer is right – the proper metaphor is Where Is Waldo? . . . But the good news is . . He’s really there!

Graphic Credit: YouthAreAwesome.com

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Generally I always like the push towards performance. Seems like there may be a little too many things going on.

John – You’ve seen so many of these performance initiatives with various names across administrations. What do you think the trick is to make them have teeth? Or is it in the end alright – and we are making steady incremental progress

John Kamensky

Hi Steve – Having teeth isn’t as important as having leadership. Generally success is driven by (1) someone who passionately cares about making it happen, and (2) a great deal of persistence in making steady progress in the face of competing pressures. A great example is Governor Martin O’Malley.

At the Federal level, I think there has been steady progress across administrations but unevenness in that progress, across agencies.

Jaime Gracia

Great post John. This is the reason I am not a big fan of EVMS, as it is a tool for reporting and data, but not used effectively to make decisions which is what this tool is supposed to be for. If industry does not use it anymore, why does government continue to insist on its use? There is an ocean of data and reporting, but little is being done in the way to make informed decisions about what the data is telling you.