Performance management sticks around

The Obama administration, under the guiding hand of the impressive Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients, has re-jiggered the Bush administration approach to performance measurement in a positive direction.

The idea of using performance measurement as a tool to manage government is still a delicate enough creature that its survival in the transition to a new administration has been uncertain from the beginning.

Its long-term prospects remain uncertain. We will know that performance measurement has been institutionalized when incoming Cabinet secretaries and agency political appointees have material on performance measurement included in briefing books as a matter of course. Even though performance measurement has been part of government for 15 years — created under the Government Performance and Results Act and persisting under two presidents and into the first term of a third — we’re not there yet.

However, performance measurement has clearly survived the initial transition. In a June memo from Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag to Cabinet secretaries about preparations for the fiscal 2011 budget cycle, the first of four requirements was “identification of a limited number of high-priority performance goals," preferably three to eight. The memo also states that the Cabinet secretary and deputy secretary should be personally involved in the selection of high-priority goals and metrics. During a recent meeting of the Performance Improvement Officers Council that I attended, when participants were asked whether their deputy secretary was personally involved in the process, virtually every hand went up, and only a few hands went down when participants were asked about the Cabinet secretary.

Just as importantly, the Obama administration, under the guiding hand of the impressive Chief Performance Officer (and OMB Deputy Director for Management) Jeff Zients, has re-jiggered the Bush administration approach to performance measurement in a positive direction. I don’t think the Obama administration will throw overboard everything the Bush people did with the Program Assessment Rating Tool, nor should it. But the Bush approach was tied to punitive “accountability” language and put insufficient emphasis on the importance of using performance measures to actually improve performance. The most depressing thing I ever read about PART was a line in a study by College of William and Mary professor John Gilmour that not a single agency that had succeeded in getting to green on the PART portion of the President’s Management Agenda had done so by carrying out their agency work any better. Instead, they had just gotten better at communicating with OMB.

Under Zients, the message is clearly going out that the reason we measure performance is to improve performance. As a sign of the importance of the engagement of agency managers (and not just a headquarters measurement bureaucracy), I would love to see Zients establish a forum in which program managers who use measures to help manage their programs get together to share experiences, discuss best practices and comment on administration initiatives.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

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