Assessments: There ought to be a law, officials say

Agencies should be legally required to assess individual programs to support the current results-oriented law, Bush administration officials told lawmakers today.

By writing the process behind the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) into law, officials can ensure that the concepts of program accountability will endure. The process will sustain the concepts of program results laid out in the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993, officials said.

"Codifying a requirement that federal programs be assessed would strengthen GPRA and ensure that the effort to increase accountability is continued," said Kyle McSlarrow, the Energy Department's deputy secretary. "However, it is important that [the Office of Management and Budget] and the agencies have the flexibility to determine how assessments are to be conducted.

McSlarrow testified with OMB's deputy director for management, Clay Johnson, before the House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency and Financial Management Subcommittee.

Johnson cautioned that PART is an ongoing progress, subject to change, and may not even be called PART in a few years. He said it would be smart for lawmakers to focus on the idea, not the tool.

"I think we don't restrict ourselves if we codify the concept of program reviews," Johnson said. "It's a mistake to lock in one way."

Johnson said PART and evaluating programs' effectiveness complements GPRA, which provides an overall framework for strategic planning. The tool has been used for two budget cycles, evaluating 234 programs in fiscal 2004 and an additional 175 programs in fiscal 2005. The plan is to assess an additional 2 percent of programs each year until all are evaluated.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), questioned how Congress should approach legislating the performance assessment idea, such as mandating a time frame for when programs should be assessed or re-assessed.

Currently, agencies work with OMB to determine when a program should be assessed, Johnson said, adding that he had not yet considered whether mandating more high-profile programs would be effective. However, he suggested lawmakers include in the statutory language the areas in which to assess a program, such as mission alignment, management and results produced.

"It might be good to reference those aspects as things that are important in considering, but not specifying the means," Johnson said.

He said that the success of such an assessment is in the follow-up to fix the program's problems. It's important to build that habit into agencies' efforts, he said. McSlarrow agreed, crediting Energy's success with adopting the tool.

"The more agencies [that] are invested in this, the better and more likely this is something that will institutionally stay around," he said.

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