Goal: See the forest and the trees

By Florence Olsen

The Forest Service's Larry Mastic can help his agency master the management science known as performance-based budgeting. As a project manager responsible for the Agriculture Department agency's performance accountability information system, Mastic aims to help the Forest Service and the USDA earn a green score card.

The green status is a marker based on the President's Management Agenda that many federal agencies are struggling to reach. It signifies that an agency has achieved what the Bush administration calls budget and performance integration.

The task is more difficult than it sounds, Mastic said. It requires, for example, that officials take the Forest Service's strategic plan and link its performance metrics to data from the agency's financial and program management information systems.

Agency officials announced in a solicitation this month that they intend to conduct a software pilot project in their Alaska region using the Hyperion Performance Scorecard and Hyperion Application Link, from Hyperion Solutions Corp. Forest Service officials expect to award a contract for management consulting services in about 30 days. If the pilot project is successful, the agency will use Hyperion software in all nine regions.

In the Alaska region, an experienced performance management consultant will work with managers at all levels of the agency, Mastic said. Their task is to develop a consistent set of auditable performance metrics that are linked to the agency's top-level strategic objectives.

"It's been hard to pull our story together nationally because a lot of our units do things a little bit differently," Mastic said. To do performance-based budgeting, "we need standards, and we need to maintain consistency over time."

Besides helping the Forest Service sharpen its budget story, a good performance accountability system will help agency officials make better management decisions, Mastic said.

Office of Management and Budget officials, who help federal agencies carry out the President's Management Agenda, have not been satisfied with the Forest Service's past efforts to link its spending accounts to its strategic goals. "OMB is after us to do a better job of articulating what we plan to do with the money we're getting," Mastic said. Then it wants to see "what we did with the money in terms of results."

Information industry veterans caution that the most challenging aspect of

performance-based budgeting is not a technical one. Paul Strassmann, an information systems consultant with Strassmann Inc. and a former Defense Department information official, said performance accountability systems can be helpful but are not a surefire way to get to green status with OMB.

"The issue is not whether it's computerized," Strassmann said. Rather, success depends on how well managers can pull together the data indicators that would demonstrate to an auditor, say, 48 months from now that their agency is a strong performer, he said.

As an internal management tool, score card systems can be useful, but they must present relevant information that is clear to policy officers or seasoned program managers, said Barry White, director of government performance projects at the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group for improving government.

"A score card records information and puts it together in a way that decision-

makers can use to make decisions," White said. "If you don't have a decent information system, or if you aren't collecting good performance information on a timely basis," he added, "it doesn't matter what your score card looks like."

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