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.