OMB entrusts its legacy to PIOs

With a new position, administration seeks to institutionalize its performance programs

USPS touts homegrown program

Although governmentwide management initiatives such as the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) have received much attention, the U.S. Postal Service has quietly focused on its own performance improvement initiatives.

Linda Kingsley, senior vice president for strategy and transition at USPS, said her recent appointment as performance improvement officer has meant “no change at all.”

“This isn’t anything new to the Postal Service,” Kingsley said of the PIO initiative. “We’ve been doing this for about 10 years.”

Kingsley pointed to several reform initiatives undertaken by her agency. In 2002, when first-class mail volume started to decline because of the Internet, USPS developed a transformation plan. The latest version, the Strategic Transformation Plan 2006-2010, outlines goals for improving service and increasing efficiency, including a commitment to reduce costs by $1 billion every year.

In addition, the agency’s Comprehensive Statement on Postal Operations established performance indicators for fiscal 2007 and goals for 2008. Those initiatives create improvement goals and metrics for assessing improvement, Kingsley said.

She added that Bush administration efforts such as PART and the President’s Management Agenda are less demanding in comparison.

— Mark Tarallo

With the clock winding down on its second term, the Bush administration has pushed hard on a plan to designate a performance improvement officer (PIO) at every federal agency. Officials said the position will help institutionalize recent management changes spearheaded by the Office of Management and Budget.

In the five months since President Bush created the PIO position by executive order, all federal agencies have appointed PIOs.

The new officers have submitted implementation plans for assessing agency performance to OMB. The officers have met three times to discuss best practices and hear guest speakers.

“There’s a bit of urgency,” said Robert Shea, associate director for administration and government performance at OMB.

Shea said the creation of the PIO position is an effort to “institutionalize the good things” the administration has been pursuing with the President’s Management Agenda, the Program Assessment Rating Tool and other performance management initiatives.

“We want to make sure that when we hand over to the next administration, we’ve handed over clear, aggressive plans to improve,” Shea said.

With PART and PMA, federal agencies have had to meet a variety of program assessment and improvement goals. In the past few years, administration officials had been moving toward having one executive at each agency coordinate performance improvement efforts. In November 2007, Bush made it official by signing the executive order to create the PIO position.

PIO appointees typically are senior executives in leadership positions. For example, at the Environmental Protection Agency, Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock was chosen as PIO. At the Small Business Administration, Jennifer Main, the agency’s chief financial officer, was picked.

PIOs are responsible for coordinating the performance management activities of the agency, including the development of strategic plans and measures used in performance appraisals.

They hold regular meetings with agency leaders to assess progress and ensure that program goals are aggressive and realistic.

If a program is on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list, the PIO is the point person for coordinating efforts to address GAO’s concerns.

Many PIOs, including Main, have substantial performance improvement experience.

“In January 2007, I was named the associate administrator for performance management, and my responsibilities there are essentially the same as the PIO role,” she said. “So we feel we got a head start on this last year.”

In the past, various senior leaders, including CFOs and budget officers, have handled the PIO’s duties, Shea said. Ideally, the new position will ensure a coordinated approach to performance improvement.

But is the new position necessary? Two experts outside OMB offered different perspectives.

Robert Behn, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said it was unclear whether the PIO position would improve performance or simply be kind of a junior inspector general offering program critiques that are similar to those already being done inside and outside the agency.

“It strikes me as an effort to formalize what may or may not need formalization,” Behn said. “One might worry that the formalization of it might detract from the actual doing of it.”

Jonathan Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said the PIO initiative should be considered in the context of the conceptual framework for management reform promoted by Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at OMB.

Breul said OMB has identified four major components of improved performance: clarity of goals, stated work plans, assigned responsibility and commitment. PMA and PART cover the first two components: goals and work plans.

The PIO initiative covers the third — assigned responsibility — by designating a primary advocate for performance improvement at each agency.

The survival of any initiative in the last year of a lame-duck administration is questionable.

However, Shea said, he is optimistic that the PIO position will remain intact after Bush leaves office.

“We don’t think this executive order is controversial,” he added.

Behn and Breul agreed that a new administration, regardless of party, would likely propose some type of government improvement initiative but in a way that would allow it to put its own stamp on the program.

“Same game, new name,” Breul said.

Main said the underlying concepts are appropriate.

“Managers should be held accountable for the concepts behind the PIO position, whatever it’s called,” she said.

Tarallo is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. 

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