Performance metrics useless without good management, OMB's Zients told

House budget committee chairman says all the performance metrics aren't nearly as important as the federal employees who use them

The House Budget Committee's chairman today said that the Obama administration can measure the performance of all its programs but added that the data won’t add up to much without talented employees who can put that information to use.

“We shouldn’t get lost in devising management reporting systems and forget that the real payoff comes from getting good managers,” Rep. John Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) told federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients at a hearing.

Zients, who is also the deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget, agreed with Spratt and said the government’s hiring process is a major stumbling block for getting talented people in the door. The hiring process is complicated and can take months to complete.

“In my experience in the private sector, the best talent doesn’t loiter for six months. It finds another home,” Zients said.

Spratt also said managers need to do more face-to-face interviews to scope out potential employees. These days, many applications for available civilian jobs are done via the Internet, which can put the government and an applicant at a distance. Zients said he’s been surprised that senior managers have not set recruiting employees as a high priority for themselves, especially because many agencies badly need the employees. “We need to change that,” Zients said.

Today's budget committee hearing was about performance budgeting. Zients is working to institute the Obama administration’s system to measure how well federal programs operate, but he wants performance metrics that aren’t simply another to-do item on a checklist. “Most metrics are process-oriented and not outcomes-based,” he testified.

The Clinton administration had the Government Performance and Results Act, while the second Bush administration had the Performance Assessment Rating Tool. Each has its good elements, but they left agencies with thousands of metrics and plans and little else, he said.

“The test of a performance management system is whether it is used,” and GPRA and PART weren’t really used, Zients said. “Congress doesn’t use it. Agencies don’t use it. And it doesn’t produce meaningful information for the public,” he said about the current performance rating system.

Zients wants departments’ senior executives to recognize the usefulness of the performance measures, especially in composing their annual budgets. The measurements can show officials where to invest their money. Zients also believes an agency’s strategic goals and measurements must have a clear link to the performance of programs and even employees. Finally, the measures must be reviewed relentlessly, he said.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking member on the committee, said the performance measures have their place and can highlight the programs that need to be abolished or reformed.

“But they cannot make the difficult political decisions to actually eliminate failing programs, or, more importantly, restructure currently unsustainable entitlements,” he said. Those decisions will still be tough to make. As a result, “this initiative could be diminished to marginal tinkering,” despite Zients' and OMB’s best intentions, Ryan said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.


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