COMMENTARY — Program Management

Performance data: 'Use it or useless'

The Obama administration wants agencies to go beyond simply measuring performance

At a recent gathering of about 40 public management academics and practitioners, the overwhelming message was that the push for a results-oriented government — and for the related use of metrics to drive performance improvement — is very much alive and well.

The IBM Center for the Business of Government brought the group together to discuss the Obama administration’s research agenda for the coming years. The use of performance measurement in government was born in the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, the first management reform legislation Bill Clinton signed as president. It has survived the transition to two other administrations.

At the recent conference, Jeff Zients, chief performance officer and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, made clear the spin the Obama administration will put on performance measurement. (In the interests of full disclosure: My wife, Shelley Metzenbaum, recently started working for Zients as associate director for performance and personnel management at OMB. But anybody who has read my columns and blogs on this subject will know my views haven’t changed a bit.)

The Obama administration’s spin will be: Use the information to improve agency performance.

Or, as Shelley often put it before entering government: Use it or useless.

The Bush administration’s approach to performance measurement centered on the Program Assessment Rating Tool, which was an exercise by OMB and agencies’ budget people to determine whether program effectiveness could be demonstrated. The results of the exercise were supposed to factor into budget decisions.

PART increased visibility for performance measurement for agency employees and OMB budget examiners in the context of those exercises. But in general, managers did not view it as a tool they could use to ­­­­oversee programs and drive performance improvement. The most devastating comment I ever read about PART was the conclusion of John Gilmour, a professor at the College of William and Mary. In a review of agencies that had improved their PART scores, he said all of them had done so by getting better at explaining themselves to OMB. None of them had actually improved their performance. In addition, a recent study by the Government Accountability Office found little increase in agency managers’ use of performance information during the PART years.

The Obama administration is taking a different approach and emphasizing the need to make performance measurement part of day-to-day agency management, starting with deputy secretaries and moving down to middle managers. Such an approach can improve performance by motivating and focusing employees and by allowing learning — based on the feedback that the measurements provide — about what’s working well and what’s not. Zients said he believes the top-priority goals the administration has asked each Cabinet department to identify are becoming “very much part of deputies’ vocabulary.”

Performance measurement now needs to reach its potential — not as a paper-pushing drill but as a powerful tool to improve the results the government delivers.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Fri, Dec 4, 2009 Christopher Hanks

Steve, My guess is that most program managers already think they're doing what you seem to be calling for: namely, monitoring what's happening in their programs by looking at various measures on a regular basis and then taking whatever management actions they can to fix any problems that may have presented themselves. What your essay does not address is the money question: suppose a program manager comes to the realization that his or her program does not have enough money (assigned obligation authority) to fully accomplish its objectives - with the result that measured program performance is coming in less than desired, planned, expected, or promised. (This happens all the time in defense programs, for example.) In that circumstance, what should the program manager do? What can they do? As long as federal agencies run on budgets (i.e., operate using obligation authority amounts that are settled upon and fixed in the budgeting process each year), it's hard to see how program managers are supposed to be able to do anything when money is the problem - unless, of course, at least some program managers are willing and prepared to recommend that their programs either have their objectives cut back or be cancelled. Maybe program managers need to be trained on how to do that when circumstances require - even though it will go against every instinct they are supposed to bring to their jobs.

Fri, Dec 4, 2009 James Reeves

For IT investments, OMB’s performance management guidance in the past Administration often led (unintentionally) to agencies’ measuring the wrong things. Compliance with the requirement to include at least one measure for each of the four parts of the Performance Reference Model resulted in metrics like “system up-time at 99.5%” or “80% of users rate the interface as good or excellent,” which, while significant and useful at their own level, measure outputs instead of outcomes. I hope that OMB’s promised revised guidance on IT performance measurement will emphasize that a top-down approach is essential: performance measures for an investment must be designed to show how well the investment supports and advances the business process(es) that are its reason for existing. Ideally, this means a clear line of sight from mission to business process (AKA EA Segment) to investment and in some cases to project or system, with appropriate outcome-based performance measures at each level.

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