Performance management challenge: It's the (fiscal) environment, stupid.

As the Obama administration continues its push for better achievement of performance goals, federal executives are in a tough position for setting measures of success because their world is in complete upheaval.

The Office of Management and Budget’s changes to its Circular A-11 don’t have any drastic shifts in thinking, but it’s the environment agencies find themselves in that will make the new measures difficult to realize, said John Palguta, a former federal executive and now vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service.


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OMB Circular A-11


As with so much else about the government recently, sequestration is the largest single factor. Both the anxiety its anticipation is causing and the real cuts to funding that it will demand contribute to the psychological obstacle. On top of that, officials have been dealing with tightened budgets already. Looking to Capitol Hill, House and Senate leaders have agreed to work out a continuing resolution for six months, which essentially keeps budgets flat or could even decrease them. No details have been released yet as Congress is in its August recess.

All officials can do is hope for no reduction in their funding, Palguta said. And whatever happens to their budgets, he added, they can expect their workloads to increase.

Agencies can plan for the short term in times like these, but more distant goals are hard to define. Despite all that, the administration wants federal executives to make long-term plans that will be measured and possibly be available online.

OMB officials are pressing ahead with federal performance management reform, taking on the issue in its latest A-11. The documents, part of OMB’s guidance for agencies in preparing their budget requests for fiscal 2014, include new plans directing agencies toward better management of performance goals.

The broad, multiyear effort aims to boost accountability and operations throughout the government. Central to the reform plans is the mandatory use of Performance.gov, the central location where agencies will be posting their goals, plans, progress, reviews and other information -- some on a quarterly basis.

The website will feature agency and cross-agency priority goals, federal program inventory, strategic agency plans, and annual performance plans and reports.

“Performance.gov is a website that serves as the public window on the federal government’s goals and performance,” OMB officials wrote in the circular.

These metrics are important as Congress, agencies and the administration develop their budgets. It can make an impact, despite the influence of other forces.

“Politics will win over performance, obviously, but performance should influence the decisions,” said Patrick Lester, director of fiscal policy at OMB Watch, a watchdog group.

Palguta echoed Lester’s sentiments, saying the key is to infuse some data and facts into the debate. “A-11 is an attempt to contribute,” he added.

The changes in government also mirror similar moves in other sectors, including nonprofit groups, Lester said.

Performance management has become one measure for organizations to determine efficiencies and deficiencies in their operations -- where they should add or withdraw their resources.

“We’re just at the beginning, and A-11 is one part of a larger movement,” Lester said. “This is the wave of the future.”

The Government Performance Results Act of 1993 laid the foundation for managing agencies’ programs with metrics. President Bill Clinton also launched the Reinventing Government initiative. The George W. Bush administration continued the trend with the Performance Assessment Rating Tool in the 2000s, and President Barack Obama has driven performance management as an initiative since he took office. The most recent changes in A-11 stem from the GPRA Modernization Act, which became law in January 2011.

Among other things, the law requires agencies to set measurable performance goals, enhance coordination to avoid overlapping government programs, and post regular performance updates quarterly on Performance.gov.

Federal executives have been aware of metrics and measures for success for years. However, now the leadership is taking performance to heart and IT is putting it within agencies’ reach. Industry has developed software packages that can assess work and dole out metrics, Lester said. As often happens with IT advancements, the systems become more affordable and available.

Despite technology, the government still faces the lingering dilemma: What is a reasonable and measurable metric?

Palguta, who worked for the Merit System Protection Board, said the board’s mission was to administer justice and fairness. What sort of metric can define that? More important, a wrong metric could skew the results of cases. Other agencies’ missions are less of a conundrum, such as efforts to cut the number of homeless veterans.

The point is to set reasonable expectations and well-defined outcomes. Furthermore, the metrics have to be understandable and worth paying attention to, Palguta said. With the new Circular A-11, those goals will be available to the public eye.

“OMB has put more pressure on agencies to put information out there that they can’t explain away,” Palguta said.

About the Authors

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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