GPRA not a cure-all for federal problems

Comptroller General of the United States Charles A. Bowsher recently testified before Congress on the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA).

For those of you who are not familiar with it, GPRA requires agencies to set strategic goals, measure performance against those goals and report progress (or lack thereof) to the president and Congress.

According to Bowsher, GPRA can contribute to better congressional and executive-branch decision making, particularly at a time when the need to reduce the federal budget deficit underscores the need to manage the federal government better.

The problem, Bowsher said, is that agencies are often faced with unclear, results-oriented goals and with a lack of reliable, accurate and timely program and financial information. So far, Bowsher is singing the same old song he's been singing since he was appointed.

Bowsher believes GPRA shifts the focus of federal management from a preoccupation with staffing and activity levels to a focus on "outcomes." In the private sector there is indeed a focus on outcomes—for example, the bottom line. Bowsher would like GPRA to force government managers to keep their eye on their own bottom line.

Bowsher cited the Coast Guard's revamped Marine Safety Program as exemplifying this bottom-line approach.

When the Coast Guard began focusing on what it was trying to achieve—fewer injuries and fatalities—it shifted its program efforts. Bowsher said the Coast Guard had been concentrating on inspections, but as a result of the shift in focus, there was a significant decline in the towing industry fatality rate. The Coast Guard achieved a reduction from 91 fatalities per 100,000 industry employees in 1990 to 36 fatalities per 100,000 employees in 1994.

Bowsher conceded that such a shift in programmatic emphasis does not come quickly or easily in the federal government because outcomes are very difficult to define and measure. That should come as no surprise to anyone who's been working for the federal government for any period of time.

Bowsher advocates strong and sustained congressional attention to GPRA. Is he kidding? How is Congress going to be able to make a positive contribution to the implementation of GPRA? It can't even pass the 1996 budget.

I think Bowsher is trying to butter up his bosses, plain and simple.

Bowsher recited a litany of problems facing government agencies—namely, unclear missions and accumulated responsibilities and roles that evolved over the years.

He also cited unclear legislative mandates (be careful now, Chuck) and disagreements between the legislative and executive branches.

To illustrate, Bowsher cited the Environmental Protection Agency. He said the EPA hasn't been able to target its resources efficiently because it didn't have an "overarching legislative mission," and its environmental responsibilities had not been integrated. Heck, if it was up to Congress, they'd abolish the EPA. No wonder the EPA has a problem focusing on its priorities. I hate to tell you this, Chuck, but GPRA isn't going to solve this problem.

Bowsher goes on to say that the situation at the EPA is not unique. Here he and I are in complete agreement. Where we disagree is that there are many programs that were legislated into existence because certain members of Congress were persuaded by the program's constituents.

Once the programs were enacted into law, however, conflicting views within Congress brought about lots of legislative gridlock. None of this is going to be resolved by GPRA, I'm afraid. I wish it would, because the taxpayers deserve better.

Agency missions and goals that are unclear, that overlap and that are fragmented, I'm afraid, are intentionally so.

That's the way the political process works. Give each interest group a little bit of what it wants in return for votes. No matter that the taxpayer gets the short end of the stick. We'll worry about that later. That's the attitude that Congress has taken in the past and, unfortunately, that it will continue to take in the future.

I wish Chuck Bowsher and the General Accounting Office would get out of the public relations arena and stop touting these ill-conceived remedies for problems that are essentially political. GAO is an audit agency. That's all it is, and that's all it ever will be. As an audit agency, it serves a useful purpose. To think it can be anything but is to believe in the Tooth Fairy.

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Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week and the author of Bureaucratus Moneyline, a personal finance newsletter for federal employees, available by subscription on FCW's Web page at http://www.fcw.com. For more information, contact Bureaucratus at bureaucratus@fcw.com.

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