Results Act reality check

"Government needs to run more like a business." It is difficult to imagine how many times that phrase has been uttered since Congress and the Clinton administration got serious about reforming the way government programs, and the information technology projects that support them, are managed. However, like many political slogans and mottos, the saying sometimes doesn't pass the reality test.

Of course, many of the procurement reforms that borrowed heavily from the private sector have been a raging success in delivering technology more cheaply and faster to many agencies.

But sometimes private-sector strategies fit the government like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. The Government Performance and Results Act, as perceived by many, couldn't be more square. The law borrows heavily from the private sector in trying to make agencies more financially accountable by requiring them to correlate spending on information systems and programs with improvements in agency services.

The problem, however, is that, unlike businesses, government agencies have a hard time quantifying this correlation. Businesses can easily measure how much profits increase, but agencies must measure ever-mushy improvements in health, welfare, equality, safety and providing information, just to name a few. Businesses measure performance by dollars invested, dollars returned. Government measures dollars invested, but then must quantify public satisfaction or increased welfare. Those are esoteric concepts that have little relation to quantifiable numbers, to say the least.

Put simply, the business of government is not business.

The Office of Management and Budget, as reported in this issue's cover story, seems to understand the disconnect and is willing to work with agencies to make performance measurement work. Congressional leaders would do well to follow OMB's lead as they review agencies' performance reports, which were due last week. Only then can the square peg be whittled into something that fits the government model.

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