Agencies struggle to please many masters

Sen. Susan Collins saysCongress and the administration have the same goals for using GPRA and PART.

J. Adam Fenster

Congress, OMB aren't always on the same page. Can PART bring them together?

In the tug of war between Congress and the Bush administration over program expectations, agencies are the ones being dragged through the mud.

The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, answers to as many as 70 different congressional appropriations, authorization or oversight committees and a set of Office of Management and Budget analysts.

Other agencies face a similar challenge, having to answer to a multitude of bosses in Congress and the administration. And as OMB continues to push agencies toward defining and measuring program performance, agencies are struggling to figure out a way to meet the expectations of lawmakers while quantifying their successes to the administration.

'Agencies have to think in terms of the context of people who are making the decisions,' said John Kamensky, a former deputy director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government during the Clinton administration and now a associate partner with IBM Corp.'s business consulting division.

But that can be hard when decision-makers don't share the same view. 'OMB and Congress look at the same programs through different lenses,' Kamensky said.

Historically, Congress creates and funds programs and does not perform results-oriented reviews, said Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Efficiency and Financial Management.

Instead of focusing on performance metrics, lawmakers look at whether a program is achieving a desired result, said Marcie Ridgway, press secretary for Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.

Defining success

'A successful government program, very simply, achieves the goals it was designed to achieve in a cost-effective manner and has substantial data to indicate its success,' Ridgway said.

'Government programs are designed to 'enhance a good' or 'mitigate an evil.' '

But appropriators and authorizers have yet to make the connection to performance metrics or managing for results on a consistent basis, Kamensky said.

Lawmakers showed some interested in applying a results-oriented approach to agency programs when they passed the Government Performance and Results Act in 1993. But besides the mandated agency reports to Congress, executive and congressional attention to whether programs are meeting performance results has been insignificant, said former Hill staff members, General Accounting Office examiners and administration officials.

'GPRA is a massive paperwork exercise that is complicated in its conception,' a former congressional staff member said.

Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management, said that very few management and budget decisions are made based on GPRA reports.

The administration is trying to transform both the agency and congressional approach to how successful programs are measured (see interview, Page 30). During the fiscal 2004 budget preparation, the White House introduced the Performance Assessment and Rating Tool (PART) to gauge the achievements of 20 percent of all federal programs. Johnson said the plan is to rate 20 percent of the programs each year until all programs have been appraised.

'Next year will be the first that we have a critical mass of reviewed programs to determine what ought to be spent where and change our interactions with Congress,' Johnson said.

Explaining approach

But closing the gap between how Congress and the administration define program success is a slow process, Johnson said.

OMB has had several meetings with appropriations and authorizing committee staff members to explain how the PART exercise works and the value of it.

'PART is a simple tool that concentrates people's focus on whether something is working or not and at what cost,' Johnson said. 'There is a quite a range of openness [in Congress] to use results as a measure of success.'

In fact, Johnson said, NASA and its appropriations committee have worked together over the past year to develop efficiency and effectiveness measures. If one committee can do it, the administration has real hope that others can be convinced in time, he said.

Johnson said OMB also is working with agencies to help them better define performance metrics. Officials conducted a formal workshop last summer educating agencies on setting measures and managing for results, he said.

Platts said the PART exercise and agency GPRA reports should be used together. A soon-to-be-released General Accounting Office report, requested by Platts' subcommittee, will recommend OMB better link PART and GPRA.

'Both have useful information for executive branch managers and how they can prioritize limited resources,' Platts said. 'Members of Congress can use it to see how programs are performing and whether they need more money, less money or need to be canceled.'

GAO also will issue a report within a few weeks on the effectiveness of GPRA since its enactment 10 years ago, comptroller general David Walker said in his testimony before the Government Reform Committee in September.

Finishing implementation

Walker said agencies now are producing more results-oriented goals and performance information, and the information is more transparent to Congress. But GPRA is far from completely implemented, he said.

Although there are mixed opinions about the effectiveness of GPRA, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said GPRA reports still are relevant.

'Each year, agencies have made progress both in the quality of their reports and linking programs to budget requests,' Collins said.

She added that both Congress' and the administration's goals in using GPRA and PART are similar: improve financial management, have outcome-based reporting, improve accountability and increase transparency in government.

But until the administration can convince lawmakers to view programs from a results-oriented lens, agencies will remain stuck in the middle of two bosses.

'Many times Congress wants to see a budget that is based on results and a budget based on the old account structure,' Kamensky said. 'It is a transition process where agencies have to build up a trust with the appropriators. This entire process is like going to the dentist: You know it hurts, but it's good for you.

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