Agency system tracks contractor performance

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is keeping a close watch on contractors' performance. With help from a metrics tool, CMS officials are gathering workload and budget data and will soon measure the performance against their goals and receive alerts about problems.

They will be able to troubleshoot areas of concern, said Gloria Stedding, information technology specialist and project officer for CMS' contractor management information system. "They can react more quickly to [problems] and monitor them a little bit better," she said.

The system was created two years ago to give the centers' employees a central source of data on contractor workload and budgets. About 300 regional Medicare employees use the information to monitor the work of about 80 companies that process Medicare claims.

But the information stored in the system is hard to access, Stedding said. "Right now, the data is on the mainframe," she said. "Users would have to log in to that to create a report. There are a lot of steps, and it's not user-friendly."

The agency is purchasing Cognos Inc.'s Cognos Metrics Manager, a tool used to monitor and organize contractor data and provide officials with a performance picture. "It's kind of like a report card," Stedding said. "We'll set it up for alerts based on the statistics on how well the contractors are doing."

The Cognos Metrics Manager brings data from several sources into a single database and presents a score card for the performance results, with successful programs receiving a green score and at-risk areas getting a red score.

The regional offices are helping set the performance metrics, and officials expect the tool to be in place by December. Officials had success using a similar tool for Year 2000 data change preparations, Stedding said.

With the Office of Management and Budget closely watching project performance, agencies are tightening their work and monitoring their outcomes. "The government is saying, 'We're going to stop funding programs that aren't effective,' " said Terence Atkinson, Cognos' director of public-sector solutions. "Program performance and agency performance [are] being driven very aggressively."

By setting metrics that line up with a department's strategic goals, officials can gain a clear picture of a project's efficiency, Atkinson said. Measuuring projects over time will show where to focus efforts to achieve desired outcomes.

"The important thing is to start measuring stuff, and if you see an input isn't having an effect on an outcome, either you are doing something wrong or you shouldn't be doing it," Atkinson said.

Anne Reed, president of consulting firm Acquisition Solutions Inc., said the key to performance measurement is monitoring the right metrics.

"A good way would be if you have really identified the critical performance indicators so it's really synced up to a performance-based methodology," Reed said. "If the tool is simply used to reinforce the old methods of management, it might be a more efficient way of doing a bad thing."

Agency and program managers must set the tone for how employees and contractors react to being monitored, Reed said. It's important to continue to view the relationship between government and industry as a true partnership, she said, and the two should work together to determine how to measure performance.

"If the approach is used as a 'gotcha' mechanism, that would not be very healthy," she said.

Employees might not want to have their work achievements reported in detail, Atkinson said, and managers should be aware of that. The focus should also be on how to achieve the desired outcome.

"The appropriate approach is really not to punish poor performance but to identify how to improve the performance," Atkinson said. "That's really the culture you need. The whole performance-based culture should not be a tattletale system."

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Management tools

Performance measurement tools need not be used just to manage contractors. For example, a division of the U.S. Army Reserve Command deployed Cognos Inc.'s Cognos Metrics Manager to monitor its workforce.

Reserve officers needed a way to manage troop training and readiness. Once they determine what it means to be ready, managers can set the metrics and receive alerts. For example, if the troops need to be able to deploy 70 percent of their resources within 72 hours, a manager would need to know when available resources dipped below 60 percent. In that case, the tool would alert managers with a red score indicating an at-risk area, said Terence Atkinson, director of public-sector solutions at Cognos.

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