One year to go, then the handoff

OMB says a true test of the President’s Management Agenda would be whether it carries over into the next administration

The Office of Management and Budget launched the President’s Management Agenda in the summer of 2001, intending to leave the federal government in better shape from a program management standpoint than it found it. Clay Johnson, OMB’s deputy director for management, often repeats a story about how President Bush asked him to make federal agencies more effective and efficient in the ways they spend taxpayer money.

For Johnson and his team of managers, the agenda for the next 12 months is clear: Keep advancing the management principles of the President’s Management Agenda, which are strategic management of the workforce, competitive sourcing, improved financial performance, expanded e-government, and budget and performance integration. Johnson’s team includes Robert Shea, associate director of administration and government performance; Karen Evans, administrator of e-government and information technology; Paul Denett, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy; and Danny Werfel, acting controller.

Members of the management team sat down with Federal Computer Week News Editor Jason Miller in Johnson’s Washington office to discuss what each of them hopes to achieve in the final year of the Bush administration. This is an excerpt of that interview.

FCW: With one year left, what can be done? What are your priorities? How do you sustain momentum?

Johnson: We are not trying to do anything new.

The president has asked us to make sure what we’re working on is going to make the federal government more effective while we’re here and after we leave. Those initiatives are [outlined] in the President’s Management Agenda and a recent executive order related to performance improvements in federal programs. We must make sure we are implementing those initiatives and moving each one further down the field, but no new initiatives. We want to achieve the desired goals for 2008 and set goals for 2009, so that when the next administration comes in, people aren’t standing at parade rest, waiting for their marching orders.

FCW: How are you looking differently at the final year’s goals compared with previous goals?

Johnson
: We don’t expect less of a reduction in improper payments in our last year. Nor should you say we’re going to take improper payments down to zero because that would be unrealistic.

So the goals must be reasonably aggressive.

FCW: What are the target levels for reducing improper payments and accounting for and disposing of surplus property? Is each of those goals agency-specific, or is there a governmentwide goal?

Werfel
: We have a governmentwide goal for both improper payments and real property. And each agency has a set of goals they are responsible for. In the past few years, we’ve seen those numbers trending in the right direction for improper payments. In 2004, we had 3.9 percent error rate. And that error rate has come down. We’re now at a 3.1 percent error rate. Next year, we’re targeting an even lower rate of improper payments.

Each agency has a goal of lowering the rate to 2.9 percent.

Each agency also has goals for individual programs. So we develop our governmentwide rate based on what the agencies’ individual rates are. Through the PMA reviews, we make sure those rates are reasonably aggressive.

On real property disposal, our target is to dispose of $1 billion to $3 billion in real property each year. Agencies know what they need to do, and our priority quite simply is reaching those goals.

FCW: With the improper-payment rate coming down, will you get to a point where y ou’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and what’s left is harder to reach?

Werfel: The low-hanging fruit is taken care of quickly. Each improper payment avoided is tougher than the previous one.

But we have experience with the programs, and we understand the root causes of im proper payments better over time.

So, yes, it’s tougher each year, but we’re also advancing on our learning curve. We still expect to see the types of reductions that we’ve already seen.

FCW: What is going on with the Financial Management Line of Business? Is there a specific goal for, say, three to five agencies to move to a shared-services provider?

Werfel: We have several agencies that are on the cusp of modernizing: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and the Agriculture Department.

Our goal is to make sure that all of them are meeting all of their targets. You don’t necessarily reach those targets in a year. But those agencies have specific milestones, and those milestones are leading to a shared-services provider agreement for financial management services.

We will have failed if Agriculture, EPA and Labor are not meeting their project management targets.

What we’re trying to do is standardize key elements of financial management across the government. We’ve issued standards for accounts payable and accounts receivable, but we have other core financial standards that we need to publish.

Several are due out this year. They include funds management, payment management and accounts reimburseables.

FCW: What is the focus for competitive sourcing in the next year, and how do you hope it will progress?

Denett: It’s very disappointing that the Congress is putting impediments in our way. In my opinion, that defies common sense. Even though government employees win 83 percent of those competitions, that’s not good enough. We still have a lot of congressional people making it more and more difficult for us to do legitimate competitive sourcing when it makes sense.

We’re pressing forward. We’re validating the savings because one of the things they throw at us is that you didn’t really save the money. We’re looking at about 90 of the competitions for 2008. Those 90 will cover about $3.5 billion worth of the $7 billion savings that we’re projecting during the next five years.

I’m very optimistic that those validations are going to come back substantiating the savings. We’re using, in some instances, inspectors general, private contractors and in-house auditors. They’re going to work very diligently, and then we can lay to rest — hopefully once and for all — the claims that we’re not saving any money.

FCW: When will the report on those 90 studies be completed?

Denett: It will be a series of reports. The series will be included in our report to Congress.

I’m expecting to call the Congress anytime they misstate there’s no savings.

FCW: What are some priorities in addition to competitive sourcing?

Denett: We are trying to get the right number for the acquisition workforce.

We’re working with the departments and the Office of Personnel Management to address that, and we feel we’re going to have a proper handle on the right number.

More importantly, we’re having each department do a human capital assessment by working with OPM to figure out exactly how many people they’re going to need now and in e future. We will know what the right number is and what skill gaps they have so they can be trained properly.

We have the intern program, which involves about nine departments. We have about 1,200 current acquisition interns, taking in about 500 or 600 a year. We’ll have a metric that ratchets those numbers up as needed.

FCW: What are your plans to improve agency performance?

Shea: The ultimate goal of the initiative is improving federal programs.

For the past six years, we worked to clarify definitions of success for more than 1,000 programs. We have reduced the percentage of programs with results not demonstrated from 50 percent six ears ago to just more than 20 percent today. We’re going to continue to focus on clarifying definitions of success for those 20 percent but also take a fresh look at those we completed to ensure that at the end of this administration, all of the programs have clear, aggressive, outcome-oriented, annual and long-term goals with aggressive targets and aggressive plans to improve their performance every year. We want to see agencies as much as possible make their performance challenges more transparent via their Web sites.

FCW: Is there still momentum behind the Performance Assessment Rating Tool? There was a lot of discussion in 2006 about whether PART will be carried over to the next administration.

Shea: We’re close to or we may have passed a tipping point on the PART. I think the basic questions we asked we must continue to ask if we’re going to achieve what’s now the formal policy of the executive branch, which is that programs must be effective and more effective every year. We’ve got a baseline, and we are tightening that baseline. It’s the basis by which we’ll measure our improvement each year.

There is broad agreement that the questions we ask in the PART are basic and ones that a reasonable person would ask to ascertain the state or performance of an activity. I think PART will survive.

FCW: Where do you see e-government heading this year?

Evans: We are going to be focusing on closing gaps in IT workforce skills. We performed an inventory of the workforce.

We do the survey every two years. But what we really want, and we’re working with OPM on it, is to demonstrate that we’ve actually closed the gaps. We have metrics out there, but they are not good metrics to clearly demonstrate that. What we must do is get ourselves to close those gaps. If we do that, then all of the other activities that we have planned will fall into place because we’ll have the right workforce.

FCW: Is the gap still a matter of having too few IT security personnel, solution architects and enterprise architects?

Evans: Yes, and project managers. It’s the same categories. We’re going back and looking at the existing plans that we had in place with OPM.

But what we need is improvement. It’s one thing to get new employees onboard, but what happens once they’re onboard? The metrics that we have right now are hiring metrics. But once people have been hired, we have to make sure that we have good programs in place to train them and close that skills gap. How are we going to measure that?

FCW: Will we see any kind of special hiring authority?

Evans
: The CIO Council has been looking at that.

We have worked closely with them on things like special pay categories.

One type of feedback we’re getting is that the special categories under he information technology management General Schedule 2210 series may need to be revisited.

The other thing that’s going to be worked through is the IT Exchange Program.

We have three departments — Commerce, Defense and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center — that are ready to go with an approved plan. Every time we get down to the next level where we think we’re actually ready to execute an agreement, we run across another challenge. We have to work through all those issues so that once those industry people are here, or our folks are out there in industry, the transition back and forth is seamless.

FCW: Talk a little bit about IT security and implementation of the e-government initiatives. You said last fall that OMB would not be doing anything new, and then the Trusted Internet Connections initiative popped up.

Evans: That’s not really new. It’s a continuation of IT security and building up a line of business. Right now, based on where we are, I can’t say that there wouldn’t be anything else because these things come as a natural progression.

Trusted Internet Connections is building on everything that agencies have done.

One of the benefits of being here at OMB is that you can look across government and see all those activities. That’s our job.

The goal hasn’t changed. The result that we want hasn’t changed.

FCW: What are two or three areas of e-government that agencies will focus on?

Evans: The president has issued an executive order and asked for our assistance in streamlining the disaster assistance Web portal. The initiative is making use of existing e-government initiatives.

There’s a plan in place that was submitted to the president, and the thought is that, in the future, disaster victims can do transactions through GovBenefits.gov.

Now is that going to happen in the next three months? No, but an implementation plan is in place, and GovBenefits is building out its functionality. The Web portal will collect information and be able to pass it on for later use in dataprocessing transactions. If you’re collecting information on eligibility, it’s logical that you would then pass that information to the appropriate agency, and in this particular case, most of that information would be going to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Johnson: Here’s another way to talk about it.

I’ve challenged each of the e-government initiatives’ owners to come in here and talk about their customer satisfaction level and what the average is for comparable Web sites in the private sector. They’re demonstrating with all these e-government initiatives that customer satisfaction is comparable to satisfaction with private-sector Web sites.

Maybe in some places we could take satisfaction very high, but the cost of doing that would be exorbitant, and we might choose not to do that. But we always need to be looking for ways to improve because, with these Web sites, we are in the customer-satisfaction business.

We need to understand what drives that satisfaction and be able to think through the pros and cons.

Werfel: This is one of the areas where there’s a touchpoint between what Karen and I are working on because once that information goes through GovBenefits, the executive order also requires agencies to reduce improper payments in a disaster. We’re looking at better coordination among the agencies for validating identity and validating those people who are affected by an event and what their income or asset totals are to see what they’re eligible for. It really requires collaboration

FCW: What are your hopes for the government when the Bush administration leaves office?

Johnson: We want to leave the government better than we found it. The president charges every part of the administration to think about what that means in their world, and I think we will be able to say that we did that. Is the government demonstrably more effective now than when we found it? I think we’ll be able to demonstrate that. And I think you can also say that the next administration will be more capable of accomplishing its goals than any prior administration.

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