Creators of PART predict a lasting legacy

Program assessment tool might not survive, but the culture it created most likely will

John Gilmour’s PART study

Will there be a PARTing of the ways when the Bush administration leaves office? Some policy experts seem to think that the Office of Management and Budget’s Program Assessment Rating Tool, or PART, will fade into the sunset after a new president takes office in January 2009.

“PART will be discarded in the same fashion” that former Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review was discarded, said Jonathan Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, a research center focused on improving the effectiveness of government. Breul is a former senior adviser to the deputy director for management at OMB.

OMB introduced PART in 2002 as an instrument for linking program performance and budget reviews under the President’s Management Agenda. Since then, administration officials have used PART to assess nearly 1,000 programs that represent about 96 percent of the federal budget. In 2005, PART received an Innovations in American Government award from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Council for Excellence in Government.

A new administration, whether Republican or Democratic, will probably have its own method for assessing the effectiveness federal programs, Breul said. However, that doesn’t mean that efforts to measure program performance and integrate that data into the budget process will wane.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the specific tool is going to go,” Breul said. “But I think the notion of doing performance reviews will persist. People have learned the lingo, they’ve learned the value, and there’s a lot of residual training experience.”
The PART program has institutionalized performance ratings in government culture, Bruel said. PART “has shifted the burden of proof to the agencies, changing the game in very important ways.”

Agencies that use PART most effectively link it to their strategic plans, said John Gilmour, professor of government and associate director of the public policy program at the College of William and Mary.  Gilmour has written a report on using PART.

Until the advent of PART, there wasn’t a uniform basis for assessing how well government programs work, said Robert Shea, assistant deputy director for management at OMB.

“Too often programs are measured by empathy for their missions or whether or not they can win in the budget game,” Shea said. “PART focuses on the right questions about whether the program is well-designed and well-positioned to achieve its objectives.”

PART is comprised of a 30-item questionnaire for assessing a program’s purpose and design, performance measurement, evaluations and strategic planning, program management, and results. The answers to each question result in numerical scores of 0 to 100. Those scores translate into qualitative ratings, from ineffective (0-49) to effective (85-100). PART summaries are published on ExpectMore.Gov.

“We’ve got the most comprehensive body of evidence about program performance and management ever compiled, on ExpectMore.Gov,” Shea said.

Other budget factors
It is less clear to what extent PART has influenced budget decisions since its implementation. Contrary to expectations, high performance and funding aren’t always directly linked in the budget process. OMB’s Analytical Perspectives states that PART ratings do not result in automatic decisions about funding. But “clearly, over time, funding should be targeted to programs that can prove they can achieve measurable results,” the document states.

The degree to which a program is an administration priority is also factored into the budget process. “Our goal is not that [PART] be an exclusive factor in budget decisions but that it be a factor,” Shea said. “In the aggregate, the higher-rated programs tend to get marginally more dollars, the lower-rated programs get somewhat less. But it’s not one-for-one because a higher-performing program may not be a high priority and [that program’s] monies can be diverted to fix a problem discovered in a [high-priority] program with a low rating.”

Some budget dollars have shifted as a result of PART, Shea said. “Generally, we want overall spending to be moving into the higher-rated programs,” he said. “We’ve seen that over time. More programs and program dollars are higher rated than they were five years ago, as a percentage.”
Policy expert offers management tips for PARTEven if the Office of Management and Budget’s Program Assessment Rating Tool fades away when the next administration takes office, agencies must submit PART assessments for at least two more budget cycles. Here are 10 suggestions from John Gilmour, author of “Implementing OMB’s Program Assessment Rating Tool,” for getting the most value from a PART assessment: 
  1. Don’t give PART to a low-ranking employee. Get experienced staff members involved.
  2. Get professional assistance from an outside consultant if necessary.
  3.  Work with an OMB examiner to improve results.
  4. Link PART to your agency’s strategic plan.
  5. Read OMB’s guidance carefully.
  6. Provide ample documentation, but don’t inundate the examiner.
  7. Measure what you can. Some outcomes are difficult to measure.
  8. Understand OMB’s perspective. Anticipate what the examiner wants.
  9. Redefine program parameters. Defining programs in terms of budget accounts doesn’t work in all cases.
  10. Express measures in nontechnical language.
— Richard W. Walker

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