OMB's rating tool examined

Federal programs evaluated by the Bush administration's program rating tool should be reviewed in groups based on common missions, officials told lawmakers at a House Government Reform subcommittee hearing.

Rather than grade each program alone, the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) should review projects with similar goals to determine which program is working and which ones will provide the maximum benefit, suggested Maurice McTigue, director of the Government Accountability Project at George Mason University's Mercatus Center.

"The complaint I have on PART at this moment is that it's not comparing program with program," McTigue said April 1 at a House oversight hearing of the Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee. "It's looking at programs on a stand-alone basis. If you have that [comparable] evidence in front of you, it becomes possible to cut funding from the programs that don't work."

PART, an Office of Management and Budget tool, measures programs' effectiveness and assigns each a grade. The tool tries to address the agencywide performance issues raised by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, which ties funds to an agency's performance results. In the fiscal 2004 budget request, the first round of grades was given to 20 percent of federal programs.

"Congress needs to de-fund the programs that are shown to have no beneficial effect," McTigue said.

However, officials cautioned the tool is not an automatic decision-maker for funding, and can only provide insight into areas that need management or budgetary changes. A program with a poor rating may still receive funding, and in some cases may get a boost, said Paul Posner, director of strategic issues for the General Accounting Office.

"It's not an automatic process," he said. "It doesn't take the judgment out of budgeting. In fact, it makes it harder," raising new questions for officials to consider.

Donna McLean, chief information officer for the Transportation Department, said although PART is in the early stages, over time, the tool will help agencies improve programs' performance. As the guidelines for the ratings become clearer, agencies can incorporate them into their program planning and restructure certain programs.

"In an effort to make the relationship between funding and performance more transparent and understandable, several agencies have begun to modify the preparation and presentation of their budgets to clarify how proposed funding relates to performance goals and outcomes," McLean said.

McLean called PART a "work in progress" that still has shortcomings. For example, if the guidelines for PART change significantly, agency officials won't be able to predict what they need to do to receive a favorable rating on a program.

McLean also said that with time, agencies will better understand what information is necessary for the PART evaluation and avoid a rating of "results not demonstrated."


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