OMB: Keep your briefs brief

In these days of electronic documents, a 300-page report doesn’t have the physical heft that the old-fashioned printed and bound version did, but its length still means that few people will read it.
The Office of Management and Budget is trying to remedy that — and thereby make information more accessible to Congress, other agencies and the public — by requiring agencies to produce summary versions of some reports.

OMB kicked off the initiative last year with a pilot program under which 11 agencies create summary documents to accompany their annual Performance and Accountability Reports (PARs). By law, agencies must provide financial statements and performance reports each year by Nov. 15. Agencies post the reports on their Web sites and provide copies to Congress and other interested parties.

When readers can quickly see how agencies perform against standard measures, they can raise questions and demand better results, OMB officials have said.

Under the pilot program, a participating agency could delay publishing last year’s detailed PAR until February of this year, when it submitted its budget justification documents. The extra time allows agencies to focus on creating good, readable summary documents, said Danny Werfel, acting controller in OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management. The deadline for audited financial statements is still Nov. 15.

Transparency is a goal of financial management, public reporting and government accountability, he said. “We believe that goes beyond just quantity of information,” Werfel added. The information must be clear and presented in a form that people can quickly read.

“Essentially, we’re in a research and development phase where we’re looking at different approaches, and hopefully during these pilot years, approaches will emerge that are best practices that are proven to resonate with citizens for readability, usability and relevance,” Werfel said.

In producing the documents, agencies must make sure they adhere to the correct performance measures and report results in a timely manner, Werfel said.

“That’s all part of the larger picture of transparency into government effectiveness,” he said. “If you have the wrong performance measures, it doesn’t matter how good and glossy and well-designed the presentation is.”

OMB is continuing the PAR pilot program this year and has added a new requirement: Agencies must provide a two-page snapshot of their performance in addition to the summary, which OMB has designed as a 25-page citizens’ report. OMB directed all agencies, even those not participating in the pilot program, to produce two-page highlight documents along with their PARs.

The move toward brevity is also happening elsewhere in government. In February, the Government Accountability Office and OMB published a scaled-down citizens’ guide to the Fiscal 2007 Financial Report of the U.S. Government. It highlighted information designed to help taxpayers understand the government’s financial condition and the challenges that could overwhelm its resources, such as the effect of providing Medicare to millions of aging baby boomers, said David Walker, who was comptroller general at GAO when the guide was released.

The effort reduced a complicated report to a user-friendly, easy-to-read, eight-page document, said Sheila Conley, deputy chief financial officer at the Health and Human Services Department, which is participating in the PAR pilot program.

“That’s advancing the cause of disclosure,” she said. “Some people feel that if you put out a 500-page report, you’re helping because you’ve disclosed everything. But in fact, [relevant information] gets buried in plain sight.”

HHS was one of two agencies that made the biggest improvement in its performance reports, according to an assessment by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. The organization rates agencies on their transparency and ability to inform the public and policy-makers through their PARs. It published its latest report in May.

The center evaluates agency performance reports for the transparency of successes and failures, evidence of the public benefits the agency claims to have produced, and leadership in using its performance data for further improvements. Agencies that earn high scores have measures that relate to outcomes, and they’re able to report data over a number of years, he said.

“There’s no silver bullet, but the broadest thing they do is they make this kind of reporting a priority at the highest level,” said Jerry Ellig, a senior research fellow at the center and one of the report’s authors.
“It’s not a matter of policy or management but a matter of will at the upper levels of the agency because they care about it,” said Henry Wray, a visiting fellow at the center and another of the report’s
authors. 

HHS pulled itself up from the bottom of the ratings — from No. 24 of 24 major agencies in 2007 — to No. 5. Conley said participating in the PAR pilot program enabled the department to explore alternative ways of improving its financial and performance reporting, and senior leaders supported the effort.
Each year, agencies focus on completing audited financial statements and other accountability documents, such as assessments of internal controls, by Nov. 15 and submitting them to OMB and Congress. Agencies traditionally have had to produce the voluminous PAR at the same time. But under the pilot program, agencies provide a summary or highlights document by Nov. 15 and put the detailed information about performance in its annual budget justification document, which is not due until February, Conley said.

“Our hope, which has been realized, is for a better integration of our performance information in with the budget document to which it relates,” she said. “It’s pretty tightly provided there.”

On Capitol Hill, budget justification documents get attention from lawmakers and relevant members of their staffs, she said. “I don’t know if most people on the Hill and our stakeholder community went through our prior version of our Performance and Accountability Report and made the connection between that document issued in November to the budget justification in February,” she said.

The summary document and the budget justification also have links to online information that explains performance aspects in greater detail, Conley said.

However, the biggest reason for the change in HHS’ reporting was the department’s 2007 revision of its strategic plan. Agency leaders set four major goals from which outcomes cascaded, she said. That contributed greatly to managing the reporting process and the way in which HHS conveyed to readers what the department does, how it accomplishes its goals and the resources needed to carry out its mission.

Consolidating the agency’s priorities into four strategic goals “let us coalesce around the most meaningful kinds of measures,” Conley said.

HHS was able to identify outcome-oriented measures that could be reported from a departmentwide perspective instead of an operations- or program-based perspective. In its summary document, HHS highlighted 40 measures that contribute the most to the strategic goals, although the department tracks hundreds of measures, she said.

The Transportation Department, which does not participate in the PAR pilot program, earned the highest score in the Mercatus assessment for its long-form PAR because the document, despite its length, was easy to read and understand.

DOT officials used graphs and charts to condense data and sought to present it in a way that would catch the reader’s eye, aid Mark Haerr, DOT’s deputy assistant secretary for management and budget.
But everything that gets done has to start from the top, he added.

“We have a culture where people at the top are dedicated and committed to performance,” he said.  

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