Agencies regress on GPRA

Mercatus Center scorecard

Federal agencies took a collective step back in fiscal 2001 in their ability to clearly express and plan for the performance of their programs, but it will be hard to tell until next year whether this was a fluke or a disturbing trend, according to the leaders of an independent study released May 16.

This is the third review that the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has conducted on the performance reports agencies are required to submit to the Office of Management and Budget under the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993.

The backwards movement is particularly disheartening because the emphasis on performance brought by the Bush administration, said Maurice McTigue, director of the center's Government Accountability Project. The President's Management Agenda and the performance-based budgeting agenda item should be moving agencies' forward, he said.

The majority of the 24 agencies the center reviewed did only slightly worse than they did in their fiscal 2000 reports on the center's three criteria:

* Transparency — how well the average citizen can read and understand the report.

* Public benefits — how well the agency demonstrates it has met its stated performance goals.

* Leadership — how well the agency uses its measurements to improve from year to year.

There is no way to tell from the reports the reason for this drop, particularly when agencies made clear improvement from the first to the second years, said Jay Cochran, a research fellow in the regulatory studies group at the Mercatus Center and leader of the review.

"The agencies should be learning both from their own past successes and failures, and the successes and failures of their peers," he said.

The most likely cause is that fiscal 2001 was a transition year for the government, with a new administration making drastic changes in budget, mission focus and leadership at each agency, Cochran said.

"The real proof in the pudding will be to see how agencies score next year," he said.

However, some agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, made a huge improvement in their reports. This is primarily because after the agency received an especially poor grade on its fiscal 2000 report, the agency's leadership came to the Mercatus Center to make improvements, McTigue said.

Other agencies, namely the U.S. Agency for International Development, "literally fell off a cliff," Cochran said. "The [performance] report was absolutely incoherent."

Agencies likely will not truly move to improve their performance reports until Congress steps forward and shows them the reports will be used as part of the appropriations process, said David Walker, comptroller general of the General Accounting Office.

But with continuity of leadership and the Bush administration's increased emphasis on tying performance to the federal budget — something OMB has already said it will expand in the fiscal 2004 budget — the Mercatus Center is looking forward to seeing the scores for the fiscal 2002 reports, McTigue said.

"I would expect to see a remarkable improvement next year," he said.

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