INTERVIEW John Mercer, government reformer
year Mercer left government to become deputy director for government performance planning
at Federal Data Corp. of Bethesda, Md.
As a consultant, Mercer advises agencies how to implement the GPRA
His clients include the Veterans Affairs Department, Office of
Personnel Management, FBI and agencies of the Defense and Interior departments.
Before coming to Washington, Mercer served as mayor and council
member in Sunnyvale, Calif. The citys performance-based management and budget system
was the inspiration for the federal GPRA legislation.
In addition to his 13 years on Capitol Hill, Mercer also served a
stint as deputy assistant secretary for program policy development and evaluation at the
Housing and Urban Development Department, where he assisted state and local governments in
using community development block grants.
Mercer received a bachelors degree in public administration
from San Jose State University and a law degree from the University of Notre Dame Law
GCN senior editor Florence Olsen interviewed Mercer at his office in
GCN: How many government people do
you think really understand performance planning?
MERCER: If were talking about performance planning as envisioned by the Government
Performance and Results Act, Id say certainly less than 10 percent. Most federal
employees have not yet been involved.
The agencies have had only a handful of people putting together the strategic plan and
annual performance plans that GPRA requires, and some agencies are barely aware of the
GCN: Isnt this unusual? The law was enacted
MERCER: Its not unusual for any agency to struggle when it starts doing
comprehensive performance measurement. It wasnt until last year that many agencies
got serious. You could say they had fair warning it was coming, but many of them ignored
it until last year when they had to submit a strategic plan to the president and Congress.
Many agencies thought they knew what strategic planning was but then realized how
difficult it was when they tried to do it.
Agencies hadnt been developing annual plans that said: Heres what
were going to do this year, and heres the link between the annual plan and the
budgetand what were going to do this year is going to take us one-fifth of the
way toward our five-year goals.
GCN: Do you think performance planning or
performance measurement will be as difficult for agencies as business process
MERCER: Yes and no. The fact that performance measurement is mandated by statute with a
fair number of specific requirements makes it more difficult.
There are GPRA requirements not only in the statute but in guidance from the Office of
Management and Budget, and in recommended evaluation criteria from the General Accounting
Office and from Congress, which has come up with its own scoring card. GPRA is a very
visible effort, and thats why it is probably tougher.
On the other hand, the fact that GPRA is a statute and not the management flavor of the
month means the effort will be more sustained. That sends a message to career civil
servants that this isnt just some political flavor of the month handed down by a
particular administration or a congressional committee chairman asking that something be
done. The law says were going to do this, and were going to stick to it until
we get it right.
GCN: What does the law require of agencies in
terms of performance and results?
MERCER: There is a requirement that every agency has a five-year strategic plan that
goes into effect beginning with the year it was submitted. That plan must have long-term
goals as well as a description of strategies for accomplishing them.
The second major requirement is an annual performance plan that shows in detail the
performance goals for each program. For each long-term goal in the strategic plan, you
have one or more measurable annual performance goals.
The emphasis is on setting goals for outcomes rather than outputs, recognizing that
both forms of measurement are legitimate. Its one thing to measure how many people
enter and complete job training programs. Its another thing to say how many will get
jobs and go off welfare.
The annual performance plans were submitted at the time the president submitted his
budget in February so that Congress can, in theory, look at annual performance and budget
proposals side by side. That is happening right now, and the annual plans go into effect
for the new fiscal year Oct. 1.
GCN: Is GPRA going to be expensive for
agencies to comply with?
MERCER: The experience of others who have done it right is that its not costly,
especially if you have program managers involved who see it as part of what they should be
When youre developing a budget, you should give thought to how you will spend
money and what you will get for it.
If GPRA has a cost, it will be on the information technology side. After you have
established goals for programs, the law requires a report at the end of the year
on what you accomplished. Getting the data in a timely fashion means reporting results
to the president and Congress six months after the fiscal year closes.
What is behind GPRA is a vision of agency program managers getting a constant stream of
performance data related to measurable goals throughout the year.
To get that kind of information, particularly when you have data embedded in legacy
systems, is a real challenge that may require upgrading information management systems.
That can be costly, but it is the sort of thing agencies do anyway on a periodic basis. It
should become part of the system requirements that the information management system
generate performance information for managers on a weekly basis.
GCN: Are the electronic information systems
in most federal agencies adequate for the requirements of the law?
MERCER: Absolutely not. As a rule they are not able to support the laws
implementation the way it was envisioned. Thats partly because IT systems have not
been set up to measure and report performance.
In some instances, it may be a matter of finding the data and pulling it into a data
warehouse. In others, it may require updating systems or buying new systems. If you are
doing a comprehensive performance management system as GPRA envisions, it means the IT
people sit down and talk to the budget and accounting and program management staff to
figure out what information they have and what theyre going to need. Im not
sure that conversation has been held in many agencies.
GCN: Have any agencies been exemplary in
meeting the new requirements?
MERCER: The Transportation Department is recognized as doing the best job overall. The
Education Department also has been doing well. Veterans Affairs has shown the biggest
improvement. Many other departments have been found by Congress to be seriously wanting.
GCN: What inspired you to make a career of
MERCER: I was always interested in government from high school on. I studied public
administration as an undergraduate and came to Washington when I got out of law school. I
went to work on Capitol Hill, so I was exposed early on to policy debates.
I left after five years and returned to my hometown of Sunnyvale. This was in the late
1970s, and Sunnyvale was just starting a comprehensive performance management and budget
system about the same time I got elected to the city council.
Over the eight years I served on the council, and part of that as mayor, I saw how
effectively it worked. I believed at the time, as I still believe, that the city had
discovered something about the power of measuring goals and linking that to budget
I remember thinking, aha, now I understand why the federal government is so screwed up.
All the policy debates were about whether a particular program was a federal
responsibility or not, never about what the program should accomplish. That argument was
always missing from the debates I heard in Congress in the five years I was on the House
of Representatives staff.
GCN: Isnt there considerable overlap
between GPRA and the requirements of the Government Management Reform Act and the Chief
Financial Officers Act?
MERCER: There is certainly a very strong relationship. GMRA and CFOA together require
reforms of financial management systems and annual audits. If you think of those two laws
as the spending side of the coin, GPRA is the performance side.
When all three laws are effectively implemented, you should have an true picture of
what you are spending and what you get.
Budget structure reforms are necessary, because the budget account structures
dont match performance plans as well as they should. They were created at different
times for different purposes, and the appropriations staff has difficulty making
If you want to do all of this rightgood financial management, good performance
measurement, good accounting systems, a rational budget processall the players need
to be at the table coming up with a common plan. Then they can each go out and execute
their own piece. When you reassemble the pieces, they should fit together in one nice