Budgeting tool targets performance

OMB Spring Review and PART guidance

Beginning this fall, the Office of Management and Budget will use a tool to evaluate the performance of programs for which agencies have requested funding.

The Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) requires agencies to answer a series of yes-or-no questions about the outcomes of their programs. Then the tool, which can be accessed online, issues a numerical grade.

PART provides a better way for OMB to measure the effectiveness of federal programs because it introduces an open and understandable review process, according to OMB officials.

The tool also makes it possible to objectively compare the performance of one program to that of another, OMB Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. said June 4 at a National Academy of Public Administration's Performance Conference.

This is the first version of the tool, and the annual spring review process "is a shakedown cruise" to see how well it works and what changes should be made, Daniels said. The tool will help OMB determine future funding levels for programs.

A final version of PART will be available in early July and will reflect the comments and lessons learned from the spring test, said Marcus Peacock, associate director for natural resources, energy and science at OMB.

OMB is under no illusion that a numerical grade will provide all the answers, "but it gives us a pretty good signal," Daniels said. During the evaluation process, agency officials are also prompted to provide a brief explanation with each answer and include supporting evidence.

For this year's evaluation, agencies must select programs that together make up at least 20 percent of their funding. OMB is also asking agencies to determine which programs will be reviewed this fall and has issued guidelines for selecting the programs, general instructions for using the tool and explanations for each question.

The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 requires agencies to set performance improvement goals in annual plans and to provide annual reports on their progress toward these goals. Agencies submitted their first reports, covering fiscal 1999, to Congress in 2000, but so far experts and officials have been critical of the quality and effectiveness of the goals and reports.

With help from the new Performance Measurement Advisory Council, PART is intended to become the means by which OMB and agencies will address the performance issues raised under GPRA, Daniels said.

The new tool is another important step in OMB's work to add more details to the budget decision-making process, said Bruce McConnell, a former chief of information policy and technology at OMB and now president of McConnell International LLC, a marketing and consulting firm.

"Anything you can do to get serious attention focused on performance is great," he said.

But at the same time, it will be critical to think of the information that comes out of the tool as only part of the input for any decisions about budget, not the only factor upon which those decisions should be based, McConnell said. "This is really more of a tool for dialogue between OMB and the agency, or even within the agency," he said.

OMB last week briefed the President's Management Council on PART, and it will be a key topic at the first meeting of the advisory council, Peacock said.

The tool will likely continue to evolve as agencies and OMB get more experienced using it, but there will be a "final" version every year for agencies to use in their budget planning, Peacock said.

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