Group raps feds on GPRA

Agencies are still having trouble turning out clear and accurate performance reports as required by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA), which is a key problem as citizens and Congress attempt to identify the benefits behind investing in specific government programs, experts said.

In fiscal 2001, federal agencies took a step backward in their ability to clearly express the intent of and plan for their programs' performance, but it will be hard to tell until next year whether this was a fluke or a disturbing trend, says an independent study released May 16 by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

This is the third review that the Mercatus Center has conducted on the performance reports agencies are required to submit to the Office of Management and Budget under GPRA.

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

Other government observers agreed, saying that the increased focus by the executive branch on program performance could be a turning point for GPRA.

"I have much more hope for the March 2003 reports, especially with the president's focus through [OMB] on performance," said Barry White, director of government performance projects at the Council for Excellence in Government.

Most 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 that it has met its stated performance goals.

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

Agency scores most likely dropped because 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, said Jay Cochran, a research fellow in the regulatory studies group at the Mercatus Center and leader of the review.

However, some agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, made huge improvements in their reports — primarily because their leaders came to the Mercatus Center for help after receiving especially poor grades on their fiscal 2000 reports, 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." The Small Business Administration admitted that most of its data was inaccurate, while the State Department data could not be linked from year to year, meaning that an overall picture of the agency's performance was impossible.

The agencies at the top of the score card — including the Transportation and Veterans Affairs departments — did particularly well in the transparency area. And it is important for citizens and Congress to use an agency's performance report as an instant indicator for how the government is serving the country, said Ellen Taylor, a policy analyst with OMB Watch.

But until agencies' reports can really show the performance improvements that are — or are not — being made, the most transparent reports are still almost useless, she said.

Agencies must start working closely with Congress and the General Accounting Office to identify ways to help agencies improve, Taylor said. It is not enough for Congress to simply hold hearings criticizing agencies for getting low scores from the Mercatus Center or on the president's management score card, she said.

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, GAO comptroller general.

The fact that the top two advocates for GPRA in Congress — Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) — are leaving at the end of this session creates a gap that must be filled, the Council for Excellence in Government's White said.

"The door is open for a new champion...that's where the hope is," he said.

The appropriations committees, however, are hardly showing signs that they will reward or punish agencies because of their performance reports, White said. The White House and OMB are the only entities using the accountability measures in GPRA — by taking money away from poorly performing programs.

Until Congress also starts rewarding and penalizing agencies for their performance, there is no way to differentiate GPRA from any of the past attempted management reforms, White said.

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.


Ranking performance

Federal agencies are still struggling to create high-quality annual performance reports as required by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, according to the third annual assessment of those reports by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Here's how agencies ranked this year compared to last year's results:

Agency ... Fiscal 2001* ... Fiscal 2000*

Transportation Department ... 1 ... 2

Department of Veterans Affairs ... 2 ... 1

Labor Department ... 3 ... 4

Energy Department ... 4 ... 10

Environmental Protection Agency ... 4 ... 6

Justice Department ... 4 ... 5

Nuclear Regulatory Commission ... 4 ... 21

General Services Administration ... 8 ... 8

Treasury Department ... 8 ... 13

National Science Foundation ... 10 ... 6

Department of Housing and Urban Development ... 11 ... 10

Social Security Administration ... 11 ... 19

Agriculture Department ... 13 ... 24

Commerce Department ... 13 ... 14

Interior Department ... 13 ... 12

Small Business Administration ... 16 ... 8

NASA ... 17 ... 23

U.S. Agency for International Development ... 18 ... 3

Federal Emergency Management Agency ... 19 ... 16

Department of Health and Human Services ... 20 ... 22

Office of Personnel Management ... 20 ... 20

State Department ... 20 ... 14

Defense Department ... 23 ... 18

Education Department ... 24 ... 17

* Agencies that received the same scores were ranked as tied rather than given individual rankings.


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