Congress needs a part of PART

GAO says lawmakers should be more engaged in program review process

GAO report: "Performance Budgeting: PART focuses attention on program performance, but more can be d

The Office of Management and Budget's Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) has brought a keener focus to program management, but Congress should be more engaged earlier in the review process, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

PART provides a framework for evaluating programs under the President's Management Agenda, but OMB officials are not doing enough to convince congressional staffers of PART's effectiveness, the GAO report states.

"Most [staffers] reported that they would be more likely to use the PART results to inform their deliberations if OMB consulted them early in the PART process regarding the selection and timing of the programs to assess, the methodology and evidence used or to be used, and how the PART information can best be communicated," the report states.

Mike Hettinger, staff director for the House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency and Financial Management Subcommittee, agreed with GAO's findings, saying earlier consultations would allow lawmakers to better communicate their intent for programs, which would lead to more focused recommendations.

"One of the things...obvious to us is even though Congress is included, they have not been included to the extent they would like to be," he said.

To OMB's credit, PART has improved the administration's oversight of program management and budget discussions, the report states. Agency officials laud the tool for encouraging "an evaluation culture within agencies, providing external motivation for program review," according to the report.

However, GAO officials note that the process continues to be labor-intensive for OMB and agency officials. Furthermore, because of the long-term focus, there are few observable short-term improvements. OMB's most recent PART data from February shows that most recommendations have not been fully implemented and, therefore, it is too early to judge if PART is producing the intended results, the report states.

OMB officials have decided to provide more than 1,700 recommendations on federal programs, which could lead to an even longer time frame for presenting tangible results, GAO officials said.

"Because OMB has chosen to assess nearly all federal programs, OMB and agency resources are diffused across multiple areas instead of concentrated on those areas of highest priority both within agencies and across the federal government," the report states.

GAO officials suggested that the administration target specific programs based on priorities and costs, and focus on finding related programs for concurrent review.

Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, agreed there should be more cross- cutting examinations but said every program should be assessed.

"If there is a program in government, there should be information about its performance," she said. "Getting this assessment infrastructure in place is exactly right.... Once you have good information, the cross-cutting analysis can be much easier."

OMB officials agreed with GAO's findings and have outlined plans to make the process more collaborative among agencies.

"In many cases, it takes only administrative action to address weaknesses in program efficiency and effectiveness, and the PART process has helped do just that," wrote Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management, in a letter to GAO commenting on the report. "But where congressional action is required to ameliorate a program flaw, GAO points out that PART has been less successful."

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Making it work

Congress should be more involved in the early stages of the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) review process to ensure that information is being used to facilitate oversight and appropriations decisions, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

GAO recommended that Congress:

  • Establish a method of communicating performance goals and measures for key congressional priorities.
  • Develop a more structured oversight agenda to allow for a more coordinated congressional perspective and more informed decision-making.

GAO recommended that the Office of Management and Budget:

  • Ensure that congressional leaders are given a chance to provide input early in the PART process.
  • Seek congressional input on what performance information they find useful and how it can best be presented.

-- Sara Michael

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