Agencies differ in degree of flexibility

Vice President Al Gore's plan to make certain government agencies performance-based organizations (PBOs) that would operate like commercial businesses means different things to different agencies, and not all are getting the same degree of flexibility in how they comply.

About four months ago, Gore announced that eight agencies had been chosen as PBO candidates, including the Commerce Department's Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) as well as the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

As PBOs, these agencies would receive more flexibility in procurement and more control of finances and personnel. They would be managed by a chief executive officer who would be held personally accountable for the performance of the organization.

The CEO would be in charge of the service operation functions, although a PBO would still fall under the policy oversight of its parent department.

But since Gore's announcement, the administration and agencies are coming to realize it is not a one-size-fits-all concept.

"We have a wide range of candidates; each one is different," said John Kamensky, deputy project director at the National Performance Review. "With the initial eight candidates, we are learning unexpectedly how to [handle] this."

For example, the administration is realizing that legislative changes are not required for every candidate.

"Agencies can get statutory and administrative flexibility from existing rules and regulations in areas where they feel they need it," Kamensky said. "We found that a good share can be done through existing laws."

APHIS will likely go this route. NTIS, which is self-sufficient, will ask for administrative waivers from agencies such as the Office of Personnel Management for more flexibility in personnel and from the General Services Administration for more flexibility in procurement. It also wants more control of its finances.

"Each area represents a significant change in the way the government does things," said Don Johnson, director of NTIS. "The next agency will be different from us. The concept is evolving." Still, NTIS sees a "significant business advantage to us in being called a corporation," Johnson said. That status will allow it to maintain an interface between private and government users, he said.

"Every agency needs to be judged on what they need," said Brad Huther, associate commissioner at PTO. "We have an exemption from Title 5, whereas other models tend to rely on an OPM template created in the last several months [for] getting waivers [to develop] new human resource systems."

PTO has certain characteristics that make it more appropriate as a government corporation, such as being fully fee-funded, he added.

Of all the candidates, PTO, which has been a candidate for being named a government corporation in the past, will receive the most flexibility. It will become a PBO government corporation, only one of two in the government.

But legislation that would do this - and that was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee last month - is not what the administration had envisioned.

For example, it does not provide for a contract between the CEO, or head of the agency, and the secretary of Commerce that would be used to determine how well the CEO is performing.

Kamensky said the administration will "pursue another form of better accountability" in the case of the PTO legislation.

"The Government Performance and Results Act does this in concept, but it isn't clear [who] is accountable," he said. "We want to use PBOs as a way to put teeth into GRPA."

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