Judgment day is coming for agency performance

By Phil Butler

Are your agency's managers concerned about establishing performance measurements? Or do they feel, as some undoubtedly do, that this too shall pass?

If you listen to John Mercer, now of Federal Data Corp. in Bethesda, Md., they should be concerned, and no, it won't pass.

Mercer, formerly counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and a one-time mayor of Sunnyvale, Calif., is often regarded as the father of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act. He said he believes that the time is fast approaching when agencies will have to account for their implementation of the many laws requiring agencies to focus on results rather than on process.

During the past six years, Congress has passed legislation requiring agencies to work more like private industry. The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996 and GPRA all require agency planning. New federal accounting standards require top managers to institute accounting procedures that will support activity-based costing for systems and organizations.

What has all this meant to today's federal manager? Not much'yet. So far, neither Congress nor the Office of Management and Budget has fully used the power of these laws to provide oversight and force change. But indications are that Congress is becoming impatient with the lack of executive branch progress in implementing good performance-based business practices designed to achieve results and restore the public's confidence in the federal government.

A head start

One congressional staff member recently expressed exasperation at the agencies' lack of progress. 'We instituted procurement reform in order to give agencies more time to devote to the planning and the measurement pieces of acquisition.'Frankly, we don't see agencies taking advantage of what we've given them,' the staff member said.

The same staff member doesn't think oversight hearings or even potential new legislation can be held off much longer if the executive branch's lack of progress continues.

Ann Costello, one of my partners at Acquisition Solutions Inc., points to a recent study in which the General Accounting Office found that only 14 out of 35 agencies tied their agency goals to their budgets.

She also points to the requirement in the Paperwork Reduction Act that agency IT shops prepare formal, long-range plans. 'I wonder what agencies are going to do once Congress and OMB begin to focus on issues other than Y2K?' she said.

Pressing matters

Fed Data's Mercer also said he believes that once the 2000 scare is over, Congress will indeed move quickly to ensure that the laws, some passed six years ago, are implemented. Mercer said that the appropriations committees are becoming as interested in performance-related issues as the oversight committees.

Money is a great motivator'more effective than regulation, policy or law. It is more powerful than agency culture and can overcome great inertia. If OMB and Congress really want to change the effectiveness of programs, if they really want to ensure that acquisitions meet mission and performance goals, they will grant or withhold dollars.

OMB and Congress will keep tightening the screws on agency funding to ensure that this happens. They will enforce reporting and insist on finding out what performance was delivered for the investment. This is the most effective driving force for performance-based budgeting.

The choice for agencies is clear: Be behind the power curve or get ahead of it. If money is a great change agent for OMB and Congress, so is it too for agencies, and the tool is performance-based budgeting.

Phil Butler is a principal with Acquisition Solutions Inc., a consulting practice in Chantilly, Va. Contact him at

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