Q&A: Clay Johnson

OMB deputy director for management Clay Johnson says it's time for agencies to stand and be accountable.

Henrik G. de Gyor

OMB's performance point man will hold agencies accountable

In his desk drawer, Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, keeps a conductor's wand. It's a symbol, he says, of how the administration is working with agencies to use performance metrics.

Over the last two years, OMB has instituted a process to measure program results, and Johnson, who last June took the lead in moving the initiative forward, is the motivator behind the approach, directing agencies toward broad goals.

He is widely credited with focusing the administration on measuring performance through the President's Management Agenda and the use of the Performance Assessment Rating Tool.

OMB continues to assess 20 percent of all programs each year, and agencies are moving closer to managing for results. Johnson talked recently about the challenges OMB and agencies face in changing their habits as well as the administration's efforts to transform Congress.

GCN staff writers Jason Miller and Richard W. Walker interviewed Johnson in his office at OMB.

GCN: Why will it take five more years to get the government to manage for results when the Government Performance and Results Act has been in effect for 10 years? What's the difficulty in the transformation?

JOHNSON: I don't believe anyone would say that the federal government is focusing on results now, even after the 10 years of GPRA. Most people would say that the promise of GPRA has not been realized. It's largely a planning exercise, a paperwork exercise. I don't think anybody believes that management and budget decisions and appropriations are based on GPRA activities.

We think that needs to change. I think Congress would agree. And I think it's going to require a change in the way we communicate with each other, the way Congress and the executive branch work with each other, with the way appropriations committees work and with the way agencies work.

There was a lot of resistance at agencies when we first starting talking to them about evaluating programs and asking whether the programs work or not. How do you measure results? If they don't work, what do we do about it?

There was a lot of resistance because they thought if it was shown that a program couldn't answer those questions, bad things were going to happen to people associated with the program and the program's budget. It took them a year and a half or two years to understand that bad things don't automatically happen. If we determine that something doesn't work, what we've set out to do is determine what we should do about it.

It took a couple of years for the executive branch to reach a comfort level with measuring performance, and it's going to take a couple of years for Congress to reach the same comfort level. Congress must develop new processes, new habits and new ways of spending their time if they are to focus on results.

Right now there's a tendency to focus on one issue. For instance, we like adult literacy. And we believe that we ought to spend $100 million, $300 million, whatever the number is, dealing with the issue. So we measure how much we care about it by how much money we spend on it as opposed to how many literate adults there are.

I don't think it's necessarily going to be a more complex process for the appropriators, it's just going to require people to have different ways of thinking about the way we appropriate and the way we authorize. So we can do a better job working with the Congress.

GCN: So it's a multistep process?

JOHNSON: When the President's Management Agenda was formalized two-plus years ago, five years were set aside to [apply the Performance and Assessment Rating Tool to] all programs. It was going to take that long to really do a good job in evaluating all these programs, and get Congress engaged by the opportunity and get agencies engaged.

This is a big deal. We decided early on it would take five years to do this, and it was very wise because to change habits in executive branch agencies and Congress is not something that happens quickly.

Congress for many years has been focused on how much money, how much input are we providing, how much money are we setting aside to accomplish this goal. They haven't focused upon what the goal is and how good a job we are doing and how that determination ought to affect how much money we appropriate in the second, third and fourth years. They are creatures of habit just like we are.

GCN: Why is developing performance goals and collecting data to measure results such a challenge for agencies? What needs to be done to make better progress?

JOHNSON: The federal government is involved in some very hard to measure things. We are trying to develop an AIDS vaccine by 2010; we're trying to bring peace to certain areas of the world. It is easy to measure adult literacy rates. It is easier to measure whether all children have had vaccines or not. It is easier to measure disease rates.

It is harder to measure lots of other things the federal government is involved in, such as space missions and science research. We spend a lot of money on research. It is hard to measure results of research and whether that money is being spent wisely enough, intelligently enough and effectively. Some of the things we are involved in are hard to measure, but shame on us if we don't constantly ask ourselves: Is this working? Is this money being spent effectively?

The second thing is, nobody asked before. Congress doesn't ask, the executive branch doesn't ask. That is why we are finding in the programs that 30 to 40 percent do not demonstrate results. We don't know if they work or not because we don't have performance measures. We can't define what our goals are, and we are not set up to measure results for developing those goals.

GCN: What is OMB doing to assist agencies in defining performance?

JOHNSON: You challenge agencies to have performance measures. And you have to have one efficiency measure for each program. It is not performance, but efficiency. And a lot of people in agencies will say we don't know how to measure this.

So last year we had a gathering of people and they talked about how they measure hard-to-measure programs. They talked about why certain programs are hard to measure and what do you do in situations like that. You keep the pressure on, and people will come up with better and better ways to measure. You can't say, 'It is hard to do it therefore I'm not going to do it.' So agencies will have to find ways and share best and worst practices, which will give people an idea of what agencies with similar challenges are doing to measure their results and give them ideas.

GCN: In what ways is OMB providing that leadership to help agencies take the Government Performance and Results Act more seriously?

JOHNSON: What the president is always driving Cabinet officers and the White House to focus on is being real clear about what we are trying to accomplish.

Our vision for this is [that] it is real clear we want every program to be assessed. We want to always be asking ourselves if a program is accomplishing what was desired for that program and that money. It should be real clear who is responsible for answering that question, who is responsible for managing that program and who is responsible for accomplishing those results. That is one reason we are so high on the notion of pay for performance.

People are evaluated on how effectively they are managing the programs. It should never be the case that the program is failing and the person associated with that program gets high marks. You are as successful as you are successful.

We want to make it real clear that agencies are responsible for doing this using the scorecard methodology to measure status and progress. And a lot of agencies have their own internal scorecards where they evaluate their different component parts. It is a way of holding people accountable and measuring performance.

The old adage is: You can't manage what you can't measure. That is what we are trying to do. In my mind, that is where the leadership is'clarifying what our expectations are and holding people accountable for meeting those expectations.

GCN: At the agency level, what does OMB expect managers to be doing to maximize performance?

JOHNSON: Managers must focus more on what their desired outcomes are. We try to clarify to them the criteria to get from red to yellow to green. They turn that around and say what are their desired outcomes for all their individual programs in terms of both effectiveness and efficiency.

Our goal is to work with them to make sure that becomes built into their performance expectations. They are evaluated relative to those performance expectations. They, in turn, would work to evaluate their own people relative to those performance expectations.

They take their overall performance goal and break it down for what this group of people is supposed to be accomplishing. And if at all possible, tie bonuses and pay increases to whether they did a wonderful, medium or bad job in achieving those results.

Another reason why this will take several years to get to where we want it to be is that we have to establish better performance evaluation systems, clear understandings of what the goals are, and clear delineation of what the effectiveness and efficiency goals ought to be.

And then, most importantly, building in the habits and training supervisors to have these kinds of performance evaluation meetings with their employees, and holding them accountable for results.

Right now we reward employees for longevity as opposed to rewarding them for producing results. And to change that culture and those habits will take some time. It is not just a question of adding performance and efficiency measures, it is a question of them incorporating the use of those measures in the way we manage and hold people accountable.

GCN: At the agency level, who's accountable for developing outcomes, performance measures and data collection?

JOHNSON: The top person has to be held accountable. And the top person has to be the kind of person to understand he or she cannot do it all themselves, so he or she delegates certain responsibilities to his or her direct [staff members], and they do the same all the way down. It doesn't require a different government structure, it requires clear goals and clear understanding of who is accountable for what. An effective performance evaluation system can drive that point home.

All the agencies are now in the process of training managers to evaluate performance. They never had to do it before. They had to fill out forms. But nobody would suggest, except in a few rare cases, that filling out these forms was a real, live, valid performance evaluation. When more than 80 percent of all people are rated as extraordinary, that is not performance evaluation.

GCN: What do you see ahead? Is the government going to start seeing better progress on results?

JOHNSON: Well, out of all the management items there were two-plus years ago when we started, all the scores were red. Now, [78] out of 130 scores are red. A year from now, most of them will be yellow. There will be 30 to 40 scores that are red, but there will be a number of greens. The average agency will be yellow a year from now, whereas the average agency two years ago was red.

There was not a lot of demonstrated progress. There was a lot of preparing to change for the first two years, and now that change is being realized as agencies realize what it means to close the books in 45 days or use performance information or have a human capital plan and evaluate managers performance relative to performance expectations.

We are seeing discernable results. To go from red to yellow is a significant, real move, which says how substantial those criteria are. They call for significant change in the way agencies work. We are in the process of taking them to one level and, some period of time after that, to an altogether different level.

Multiple agencies have accomplished every one of the subparts of every one of the initiatives. Everything that needs to be done to get to yellow or green has been accomplished by at least one agency. So every one of those things is possible.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/Shutterstock.com)

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected